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Human-Robot Interaction Lab Sønderborg

Introduction to question types

One of the things we naturally do when meeting new people is to ask them questions about themselves. Or you ask for help, for direction to a place, for a tip on what to see etc. This means that questions play an important role in encounters. Therefore, we chose questions as examples in our material.

Questions are also interesting from an intonation point of view, since they can get different melodies, both depending on the language of the speaker and depending on their function in the communication. Unfamiliar intonation may also lead to confusion about what the conversation partner is doing: Is he/she asking a question, or is he/she telling me her opinion, or is he/she doing something completely different?

We formulated a small interview with twelve questions. We tried out several different question types in order to see what intonational patterns would be used. There were…

  • question-word questions (40a): These questions start with a question word, for example what, who, where, why, how, which one…
  • yes-no questions (40b): These questions start with a verb and get a yes/no answer
  • declarative questions (40c): These questions look like statements, but they are used for asking the communication partner to confirm an assumption you have and get a yes/no answer
  • questions that were marked as being delicate by having some kind of apologizing preface (40d): May I ask (Engl.), må jeg spørge (Dan.), må jeg spørre (Norw.), får jag fråga (Swed.)
  • and question formats without a verb (40e): How about… (Engl.), hvad med…(Dan.), hva med (Norw.); Swedish, see below.


    (40)       Overview: different question types

    1. Question-word question: Where were you born?
    2. Yes-no question: Do you think…
    3. Declarative questions: So your mother tongue is Norwegian?
    4. Delicate questions: May I ask whether you identify as female or male, or do you feel that those labels don't fit?
    5. Question-formats without a verb: How about another dialect?


    Then we asked native speakers of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish to conduct interviews with each other using our script.

  • This made sure that the situation for all speakers was identical, which was important because intonation is known for being very flexible and very subtle. Small changes in the situation will lead to changes in intonation.
  • Another advantage is that the questions will have similar wording across the languages, and thus they are better comparable.


    When listening to the questions, we found that the two careful questions like the ones in (40d) did not get an intonation pattern of their own. They could be sorted in under normal question-word questions (40a) and yes/no questions (40b), respectively (see the script below).

    Despite the script, the questions in the interviews did not always turn out identical. First, in Danish and Norwegian there is a question format without a verb, which we used for questions like those in example (6e) above: Hvad/Hva med en anden dialekt? (“How about another dialect?”). There is no verbless question format in Swedish, so instead, we used so-called elliptical sentences, i.e. sentences with subject and verb left out (but it’s easy to figure out what subject and verb it should be): Och kanske också en annan dialekt? (“Maybe also another dialect?”).

    Second, the questions may also vary because we instructed the speakers to talk in a way that felt natural to them. That gave them some freedom to change the wording and grammar of the questions.

    For example, some speakers preferred to ask a normal yes/no question instead of a declarative question:

  • Script: So your mother tongue is Danish? (declarative question)
    Interviewer: So is your mother tongue Danish? (normal yes/no question)

    Or they changed the wording:

  • Script: Do you speak another language?
    Interviewer: The Scandinavian languages. Do you speak them, too, or…?

    Or this speaker felt that it was unnecessary to mark a question as delicate:

  • Script: May I ask where you know robots from?
    Interviewer: Yeah, and where have you got to know robots from?


But many of the questions are very similar, and together, they make up a useful set of utterances for comparison.


These were the questions in our script (in English translation):

(41)       1. How old are you?

2. Where were you born?

3. So your mother tongue is XX…? (adapted to the country mentioned in (2))

4. Do you speak another language?

5. How about another dialect?

6. May I ask whether you identify as female or male, or do you feel that the labels don't fit?

7. What is your education?

8. Have you ever seen a robot?

9. May I ask where you know robots from?

10. Do you think robots should be used in elderlycare?

11. How about in education?

12. So you are a little critical/XX of robots? (make question fit the answer in 11)


Overview: Intonation in different question types

In the previous section, the different question types in our interview script were introduced. In this section, you can listen to all the speakers for each question. We start by presenting one typical example for the question in every language, typically starting with the unofficial high-status varieties (see Which Danish, Norwegian and Swedish should you choose for demonstration), with visualization of the intonation. We will point out some important differences in intonation between the languages.

After the presentation of each question type, you have the possibility to click on the link at the bottom if you want to listen to the same question being pronounced in a different variety of the same language. The comparison is an auditive exercise only, i.e., there are no visualizations there. There are only visualizations in this overview text.

Syllables with accents/primary stress are marked with CAPITAL letters, for example GAMmel (“old”, Danish/Norwegian, accent on the first syllable), roBOT (Danish, “robot”, accent on the second syllable). (For primary accents, read more in the text Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out, and for accents, read more in the text Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone.)

Each accented syllable starts a round of accent melody (Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone), which then stretches over all the syllables of the so-called accent group (Accent groups: chunks of speech formed by accented melodies).

In Danish, the communicative function of an utterance as a whole can influence the tone height of accented syllables in relation to each other. This is called declination. Because different question types ask different kinds of questions, the steepness of the declination are known to vary between the question types. In Swedish, there is an obligatory an end-intonation tone, either a low or a high one; in Norwegian, such an end-intonation tone can be used in some cases, but it is never obligatory (for both declination and end intonation, see Tonal movements with utterance functions).

In this overview, you find one typical example of each question type from each language. The rest of the questions, you find by clicking the link under the respective question type. The question types are:

  • Question-word Questions (also called WH-questions)
  • Yes/No Questions
  • Declarative Yes/No questions
  • Verbless Question Formats


    One question from the interview script has been left out:

  • May I ask whether you identify as female or male, or do you feel that the labels don't fit?


    This is an alternative question: the speaker explicitly mentions alternatives, between which the addressee is expected to choose. This question was obviously perceived as being intrusive by the interviewers because all speakers kept the idea of an apologizing preface (often the one we suggested in the script: May I ask…). So, the contents were problematic; but it was also a very long utterance. It resulted in speakers dividing the question into several parts and delivering it in a complicated way not suitable for this material.


    Question-Word Questions

    Question word questions start with a question word, for example what, who, where, why, how etc. There were three question-word questions in our interview script: two normal questions and one marked as delicate (starting with May I ask…). From the perspective of intonation, they seem to group together. In our interview script, there were four question-word questions. We will use the last one to illustrate the speech melody:

  • How old are you?
  • Where were you born?
  • What education do you have?
  • May I ask where you know robots from? /Where do you know robots from?


    May I ask where you know robots from?

    Danish: the typical way of pronouncing this question among our speakers is to use three accents:  on SPØRge (“ask”), KENder (“know”) and roBOtter (“robots”), which in all means three accent groups. The declination of question-word questions is typically a clearly falling one.

    (42)      In this Danish question, you can clearly hear the typical Copenhagen accent group pattern: after each low or falling accented syllable, there is a much higher tone in the next unaccented syllable:


    Norwegian: In (43), both KJENNskaben and RObote contain accented syllables. There is a small accent in the accent group KJENNskab(en) te and a big accent in the accent group RObote which can be recognized by the different tone heights of the tone on the last syllable. The high tone at the end of the accent 1 word ROboter in (43) is then the high final tone of a big accent 1 melody and not a separate end-of-utterance tone.

    (43)       South Norwegian

    Swedish: This Central Swedish speaker has small, hardly noticeable accents on FÅR, FRÅga and KOMmer; the prominence is above all made clear by primary stress features like duration of the syllable. There is a big accent 1 tonal movement on the verbal particle TILL, followed by a small accent 1 on RObotar. The utterance ends with a low end-intonation tone.

    (44)       Central Swedish

    You will find a comparison between the questions presented here and the same questions in a different variety in the text Question-Word Questions: More Examples.


    Yes/No Questions

    The most common yes/no question type is the one that start with the verb followed by the subject. In our script, there were three yes/no questions, including one which was prefaced as a delicate question. Here, we will use the second question to illustrate the speech melodies:

  • Do you speak another language?
  • Have you ever seen a robot?
  • Do you think robots should be used in elderlycare?


    Have you ever seen a robot?

    Danish: the typical way of pronouncing this question among our Danish speakers is to form three accent groups: starting with on NONsin (“ever”), SET (“seen”) and roBOt (“robot”). The declination of yes-no questions is typically a moderately falling one. Untypically, also the Danish Copenhagen speakers use rising accent melody on NONsin and roBOT, often also on SEEN.

    (45)      Danish Copenhagen

    Norwegian: This question was characterized by a lot of hesitations from all the Norwegian speakers. The Southeast speaker in (46) puts the strongest prominence on the verb SETT (“seen”), after which there is a hesitation pause. The last word RObot (“robot”) ends with the moderately high tone of a small accent melody.

    (46)       Southeast Norwegian

    Swedish: The Central Swedish utterance in (47) is a neutral way of pronunciation of the utterance. The last word RObot (“robot”), which introduces a new topic into the conversation, has the strongest prominence in the whole utterance. The utterance ends with a low end-of-utterance tone (see Accents: Important information and very important information), which according to the literature is typical of yes/no questions in Central Swedish, and it is also the most common intonation for yes/no questions in our small interview. (However, the other Central Swedish speaker uses a high end-of-utterance tone in this question; you can listen to that in section Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance.)

    (47)       Central Swedish

    You will find a comparison between the questions presented here and the same questions in a different variety in the text Yes/No Questions: More Examples.


    Declarative Yes/No Questions

    A more specialized type of yes/no question type is the one that looks like a statement, but is used as a question. This kind of question cannot be asked “out of the blue”, but it requires a context in which there is evidence that supports the assumption presented in the declarative question. The addressee is then asked to confirm the assumption (or to reject it, if it unexpectedly were to be wrong). There are two declarative questions in the interview script. We will use the first one for illustration:

  • So, your mother tongue is Norwegian/Danish/Swedish?
  • So, you’re a little critical of robots?


    So, your mother tongue is Norwegian/Danish/Swedish?

    In Danish, declarative questions often lack declination. Lacking a declination means that each accented syllable is produced at approximately the same tonal height as the previous ones, throughout the whole utterance (see Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance). However, there is also an alternative pattern for declarative questions, in which the declarative question has an almost equally falling declination as statements do. The Copenhagen speakers overwhelmingly used this falling declination, hear an example in Declarative questions: More Examples.

    Here, we present a Jutland Danish utterance with a rather linear tonal height throughout the utterance. The rise on the last word DANSK (“Danish”) is caused by the rising accent melody in this Jutland variety, and DANSK is an accented syllable. However, the rise on DANSK is hearably bigger, that is, DANSK is marked tonally for being a more important word than the previous word MOdersmål (“mother tongue”). This is untypical of Danish, in which all accents are usually equally strong, unless there is a clearly contrastive emphasis in the middle of the utterance (contrastive emphasis as in “I mean Danish, not Swedish”). But DANSK is not in the middle of the utterance, nor is it any obvious case of contrast.

    (48)       Jutland Danish:

    Norwegian: In this South Norwegian declarative question, there are three accent groups. The last word NORSK (“Norwegian”) hast the strongest prominence, and the high tone at the end is the final high tone of a big accent 1 melody, not an end intonation tone.

    (49)       South Norwegian

    Swedish: The most neutral way of distributing prominence in the Swedish utterance is represented by the Scania Swedish speaker in (50). There are two accent groups, namely MOdersmål e (“mother tongue is”) and SVENska (“Swedish”). The last accent group clearly has the strongest prominence. The utterance ends with low end-of-utterance tone.

    (50)       Scania Swedish

    You will find a comparison between the questions presented here and the same questions in a different variety in the text Declarative Questions: More Examples.


    Verbless Question Formats

    In English, there is a verbless question format How about…? Just like the declarative question, this is a more specialized question type that must be carefully fitted into the situation as a continuation of what was going on just before the question is uttered. The verbless questions in our script elaborates the (sub)topics of the previous questions. In the case of How about another dialect, the previous question concerned the ability of the interviewee to speak other languages than the mother tongue. The question How about in education? delves further into the interviewee’s opinions on what robots should be used for:

  • How about another dialect?
  • How about in education?

How about another dialect?

This question elaborates the topic of the previous question Do you speak another language? In Danish, this can be done by using the verbless question format Hvad med… (“what with…”)? Not all the speakers in our material use this format, though. Some of them prefer to use normal yes-no questions instead.

The questions of the hvad-med format have no or just a very slight declination throughout the utterance, that is all accent syllables are pronounced at approximately the same tone height through the whole utterance (see Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance). There is no end-of-utterance tone, which means that the Danish utterances end somewhere in the middle of the speakers’ tone range.

(51)       Copenhagen Danish

The verbless question format Hva med…? (“what with…”) is also used in Norwegian. It seems to be a possibility to pronounce this question type in the same way as the other question types above. In (52), there is a small accent 2 melody and on the accent group ANdre dia- (“other”) and a big, and therefore easily recognizable, accent 1 melody on the last accent group (dia)-LEKTer (“dialects”), which results in a high final accent tone on the last syllable -ter. In this utterance this high final tone is then part of the accent melody and not a high end-of-utterance tone (see Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance). However, of four Norwegian speakers, two use separate, low end-of-utterance tones with the verbless questions, see Verbless Questions: More Examples.

(52)       Southeast Norwegian:

In Swedish, there is no formulaic verbless question format. The closest equivalent to How about is the phrase Hur är det med…? (“How is it with…?”), and that includes the verb är (“is”). Therefore, we tried a so-called ellipsis in the interview script to see if this lead to a specific intonation for these questions. An ellipsis is a sentence that lacks obvious sentence elements, but they are enough to figure out from the context. For example, the ellipsis Kanske också en annan dialekt? (“Perhaps another dialect, too?”) can easily be completed into Talar du Kanske också en annan dialekt? (“Do you perhaps speak another dialect, too?”).

Only one Swedish speaker used the ellipsis we suggested in the interview; the other three speakers reformulated the ellipsis into grammatically complete yes/no questions. (As for the question How about in education?, all of them reformulated the ellipsis in the script into full question-word questions, so we cannot compare with those questions, either, to find out if there are regularities in the intonation of elliptical questions.)

In (53), the Central Swedish speaker divides the utterance into two accent groups: there is a falling small accent 1 melody on KAN(-ske); the low tone at the end of this accent melody then spreads through the rest of the accent group: (KAN)-ske nån annan dia- (“(PER)-haps some other dia-“). The last accented syllable (dia)-LEKT has a big, clear accent 1 melody rise, and the last unaccented word of that same accent group, namely också (“too”), continues the accent 1 rise with a rise to a high end-of-utterance tone.


(53)       Central Swedish:

You will find a comparison between the questions presented here and the same questions in a different variety in the text Verbless Questions: More Examples.



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Grønnum, Nina. 1990. “Prosodic parameters in a variety of regional Danish standard languages, with a view towards Swedish and German.” In: Phonetica 47, 182–214. doi: 10.1159/000261862

Grønnum, Nina. 2005. Fonetik og fonologi: Almen og dansk. Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag.

Gunlogson, Christine. 2003. True to form: Rising and falling declaratives as questions in English. New York & London: Routledge.

Hansson, Petra. 2003. Prosodic Phrasing in Spontaneous Swedish. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Kristoffersen, Gjert. 2000. The Phonology of Norwegian. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Myrberg, Sara & Riad, Tomas. 2015. “The prosodic hierarchy of Swedish.” In: Nordic Journal of Linguistics, suppl. Prosody in the Nordic Languages; Cambridge Vol. 38, Iss. 2: 115-147. DOI:10.1017/S0332586515000177

Trondheim Model of Intonation, developed by Thorstein Fretheim and Randi A. Nilsen. See Kristoffersen, Gjert. 2000. The Phonology of Norwegian. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, Ch. 10.


Question-Word Questions: More Examples


Yes/No Questions: More Examples


Declarative Questions: More Examples


Verbless Questions: More Examples


Last Updated 09.02.2023