The Recognition of the most basic
English tones and their meanings
The individual and combinational tones of English have relatively clear
significations which are not at all precise. Their characters are
chiefly definable in terms of the two features perceptible in every one
of them of animation and emotiveness. Animation correlates with the
position of the tone along the range of pitches produced by a speaker,
the highest being the most animated. Additional animation is conveyed
by pitch sustension or movement. Degree of pitch movement correlates
with intensity of emotion felt by the speaker. Common metaphors may
describe a person's mental state eg as 'moved', 'perturbed' or
'agitated' etc. The very word emotion embodies the same metaphor.
In a minor way, any degree of pitch movement arriving at the lowest
pitch in a speaker's vocal range obviously carries a suggestion of
finality, conclusiveness or completeness etc. Correspondingly, tones
not of such a character automaticly suggest some at least slight degree
2. One shd not be discouraged if, listening to people talk and trying to
identify the tones they use, one finds it baffling. Ordinary speech is
naturally constantly far from precisely articulated so it should be no surprise
that its tones often perfectly appropriately reflect imprecise attitudes and
3. A tone may be defined as a pitch feature of a syllable which stands out.
Its most usual function is to accent (stress) a word. It’s
inconvenient to be always using phrasal definitions (eg "a fall from a high to a
low pitch") so we give each tone a brief name. Syllables which
dont stand out are described as 'toneless'. For example in The 'cat 'sat on the `mat the word on and both occurrences of the word the do
not stand out so they they may be described as 'toneless'; the other
three words do relatively stand out, as regards their pitches, so they may be
described as 'tonal' or 'tone-bearing'.
Alt, sign / 'm
/, ( /m/ standing for any syllable), is a high level
tone, the only basic one which has no movement either up or down. A
speaker who starts speaking with (especially a sustained) Alt could
perfectly possibly be beginning to
sing. Much, especially older, European singing proceeds largely in the
form of sustained Alts. Any isolated word spoken on an Alt in
conversational (ie non-remote) speech usually
suggests the incompleteness of a speaker breaking off though wishing to
continue. Alts only very occasionally end complete sentences of conversational speech or
of reading aloud as opposed to calling out (remote speech) or
singing. This word is pronounced /alt/.
often occur in sequences of chiefly twos or threes with the ones after
the first regularly proceeding in downward steps. An isolated pair of
Alts may well remind
you of the warning sound from an ambulance or fire engine. Pairs of
high Alts, with the first
one higher and the second one slightly lower, are used as calls for
attention such as Yoo-Hoo and the Australian Coo-ee. A sequence of three downstepping Alts is fairly unusual. It'll be what you hear if someone begins to sing Three Blind Mice.
The Climb / ´m / begins in the middle of the voice range and moves up
towards the top of a speaker’s vocal range. On an isolated word it has
an unmistakable interrogative ie questioning effect; within sentences
it usually combines marked liveliness with a suggestion of incompleteness.
A speaker of probably any language may request repetition by using a
Climb on a sound that isn’t a true word eg [´m]. The Climb is probably the least
7. The Fall / `m / is the most frequent tone. It goes
from the upper voice range down to the bottom range. It may sometimes
move so quickly that you can only realise afterwards that you "heard" it
by noticing that the next word is low. It conveys finality with liveliness.
8. The Rise /ˏm / is the only basic tone that begins low. It moves up to the middle of the speaker’s vocal range. It’s neutral in terms of liveliness but usually positively suggests continuation whether of its sentence or of the conversation. English-speakers may use successive Rises for fairly slow careful counting: eg ˏone, ˏtwo, ˏthree and so on.
9. The Slump / ˎm / shares with the Fall its bottom-pitch-range ending and its semantic character of finality but without the greater liveliness of the Fall. It begins in the middle of the speaker’s voice range. It tends to be too lifeless-sounding
to be the only tone of most sentences. It often occurs after Alts. Their
high pitch prevents any uninterested, dull or gloomy effect.
Combinations of two or three tones may occur on single words (something
unusual in other languages). The only one of these it’s really worth
EFL users trying to adopt is the Fall-Rise / `ˏm /. Other “complex”
tones include the Slump-Rise /ˎˏm/, the Climb-Fall / ˊˋm / and the
Climb-Fall-Rise / ˊˋˏm/. These are much favoured by some English-speakers
but by others not very much used. The EFL speaker needn’t bother to
11. To recognise a tone, it’s valuable to consider
what semantic effect (broken off, suggesting continuation or final) it
has when heard (on its word) uttered in complete isolation.
12. When adding tone marks to text, from time to time the tone units
(aka 'intonation phrases') may not be adequately conveyed by ordinary
punctuation. If so, it's convenient to signal unit boundaries by
inserting after each of them a vertical bar ie "|".