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English tones and their functions

Although English language uses tones, it is not a tonal language. Tones in English language don’t change the meaning of the word, like they do in a tonal language. In order to exemplify some functions of English tones, I am going to use the words “yes” and “no”, and marks placed before them.

Level tone _ yes; _ no
Falling tone \ yes; \ no
Rising tone / yes; / no
Fall-rise tone \/ yes; \/ no
Rise-fall tone /\ yes; /\ no

There are other more complex tones in English language but, since they are not often used and are of a little importance, I will not consider them here.

Any of these tones can be given extra pitch since each person has his own normal pitch range. In normal speech, the intonation usually takes place in the lower part of the speaker’s pitch range.

The usage of English tones within the context of the words “yes” and “no” said in isolation

Fall tone “\ yes” and fall tone “\ no”

This tone is regarded as “neutral” tone. If the reply of a question is “\ yes” or “\ no” then it will be understood that the question is now answered and there is nothing more to be said.

Rise tone “/ yes” and rise tone “/ no”

This tone conveys an impression that something more is going to be said or is going to follow. To exemplify it, let’s consider a simple dialogue between two imaginary persons A and B.

A: Excuse me. (Attracting B’s attention)
B: / yes (This “/ yes” response is equivalent to “what do you want?” which means that the conversation will continue)
A: Do you know John Smith?
B (possible answer 1): / yes (Rising tone “/ yes” invites A to continue to say what he intends to say about John Smith after establishing that B knows John Smith)
B (possible answer 2): \ yes (Falling tone “\ yes” would give an impression of finality making difficult for A to continue even if A has something to say about John Smith.

Similar “invitations to continue” can be seen in someone’s response to a series of instructions or directions.

A: You go straight until you get to the first traffic light ...
B: / yes
A: At the traffic light turn right ...
B: / yes
A: The police station is on the left.

The B’s response for the last utterance is unlikely to be “/ yes” again since it is very clear that A has finished instructions.

With “no”, a similar function can be seen.

A: Have you seen John Smith?

If B replies “\ no” then it is very clear that he has no intention to continue this topic of conversation. But a reply of “/ no” would be considered as an invitation to A to continue telling B why he is looking for John Smith.

In a similar way, someone may ask a question that implies readiness to present new information, as is shown in the example below.

A: Do you know what the most expensive car is?

If B replies “/ no” then he invites A to tell him. A “\ no” response would be considered that B doesn’t know and he does not want to know, or he is just not interested in this topic and is not expecting to be told.

This is, in fact, a common cause of misunderstanding in English conversation, when such a question can be considered a request for information or an offer to provide some.

Fall-rise tone “\/ yes” and fall-rise tone “\/ no”

The fall-rise tone is frequently used in English and its function is quite special. Here I will consider just one function, a simple one, which is known as “limited agreement” or “response with reservation”.

A: I have heard that this is a good school.
B: \/ yes

B’s reply would be considered as “not totally agree” with what A have said and it is expected B to continue with explanations on why B was reluctant to agree.

With “no”, a similar function can be seen.

A: It is not really an expensive book, is it?
B: \/ no

The fall-rise “\/ no” in B’s response indicates that he is not completely agree with A and indicates reservation and hesitation, or something “given”.

Rise-fall “/\ yes” and rise-fall “/\ no”

The rise-fall “/\ yes” and rise-fall “/\ no” is use to express strong feelings of approval and disapproval, or surprise. It is not considered an important tone for foreign learners of English but being able to distinguish this tone from others is definitely an important thing.

A: Isn’t this puppy lovely?
B: /\ yes

A: You wouldn’t do such a bad thing, would you?
B: /\ no

Level tone “_ yes” and level tone “_ no”

This tone is used in English in restricted contexts. It usually conveys a feeling of saying something routine, boring, or uninteresting.
A teacher calling the name of pupils from a register will often do it with a level tone and pupils’ response will be a level tone “yes” when their name is called. In the similar way, when someone is being asked routine questions (for applying for an insurance policy for example) he might answer with “_ no” or “_ yes”.

Each tone may have more meanings than are suggested here. In the above examples other tones can be used according to what one person consider appropriate and no particular tone has a privilege of occurrence in a particular context.


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