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Human-Robot Interaction Lab Sønderborg

Accents: highlighting words by changing the tone

Melody is formed by the voice going up and down. When humans listen to it, we hear it as tonal movements. In this section, we are dealing with changes in tone height (Danish tonehøjde; Norwegian tonehøyde or tonehøgd; Swedish tonhöjd).

If you measure physically what happens to the speech signal when you change the tone height, you measure it as pitch movements. The unit used is often Hertz (Hz): a high Hertz value means a high tone and a low Hertz value means a low tone. We will not use Hertz here, but we will use visualizations that illustrate the change of tone in an intuitive way.

Our presentation will present three important places of tonal movements in Scandinavian utterances:

  • Accented syllables: syllables with primary stress + tonal movements.
  • Accent groups: accented syllable + following non-accent syllables. Read more here
  • Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance. Read more here

(For an explanation of “primary stress” and “syllable”, see section Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out.)

As was demonstrated in the presentation Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out, some words in an utterance are marked as being important. One way of marking is by using stress; but to make words with stressed syllables really stand out, also tonal movement is added.


Intonation = moving the voice up and down (tonal movements, pitch movements)


In example (13), you get some samples of some tonal movements on the same word Hi!

(13)       Listen – and watch – the way the intonation goes up and down in these greetings


a. HEJ: rising tone (DK-Copenh.)

b. HEJ: short rise – outstretched, deep fall (SE-Cent.)

c. HEI: falling tone (NO-SUNNM.)

d. HEJ: flat sounding (but actually a slight rise-fall) (SE-Scania)

e. HEI: clear rise-fall (NO-Trondh.)

f. HEJ: big rise-fall (SE-Scania): enthusiastically 

Take a look at, and listen to, the intonation of the Danish utterance in (14):

(14) a. What field of study do you study?
                         "What study program do you take?"

                                 b.      Listen to the melodies on the two accented syllables STU-(dieretning) and GÅR:

In example (14) above, the first syllable STU- in STU-dieretning (“study program”) starts from a very much higher tone in comparison to the first word hvilken (“what”). The tone then falls inside the syllable STU-. The importance of the word studieretning is thus not only marked by stress, but also by a tonal change. This is called an accent.

Please note that:

  • an accent in intonation is not the same “accent” as in the expression “foreign accent”!
  • an accent in intonation means highlighting an important word or phrase by adding tonal movement to a stressed syllable.


    In example (14) above, also the tone in the word GÅR (“go” as in “you go”) starts with a higher tone than the previous two syllables -retning (“program”). The tone then falls within the syllable GÅR. Thus, the word går is also accented.

    The high tone in GÅR is much lower than the high starting tone on STU-(dieretning), but this can be explained by two things:

  • First, it is typical for the pitch height of Danish accented syllables to fall for every new accent in the utterance (see accent group and global intonation)
  • Second, the information given by the word GÅR is less important than the information given by STU-(dieretning), so it makes sense that it has a smaller tonal marking.

Both stress and melody are then used for highlighting words in an utterance. The highlighting is called prominence, and we can now extend the table with prominence degrees that we started in section Stress: highlighting words by making syllables stand out with accent. In comparison to accented syllables, primary stressed syllables are now downgraded to signal rather important information, and accented syllables signal important information:


Table 2. Degrees of prominence: now including accent

Degree of stress


Phonetic features

unstressed syllable

Not very noteworthy information


secondary stressed syllable

noteworthy information

Stressed syllables: longer duration, louder and clearer speech sounds, long vowel sounds can be used

primary stressed syllable

rather important information

Accented syllable

Pay attention: important information

The tonal movement(s) of the accent melodies start(s) on primary stressed syllables

The tonal movements caused by accents thus contribute to the shaping of intonation, speech melody.


Accents in Danish

In Danish, speakers keeping to one variety predominantly only use the same accent melody for all accented syllables. The tonal movement of the accented syllable is part of a larger, regionally characteristic tonal pattern, namely what we here call the accent group melody (Danish trykgruppemønster), Accent groups. Depending on the regional variety of the speaker, the tonal movement on the accented syllable can be a fall to a lower tone or a rise to a higher tone. Also depending on the regional variety, the rise or fall can be bigger or smaller.

In Copenhagen Danish, the accented syllable is associated with a tonal fall to a lower tone, see and listen to the word STU(-dieretning) (“study program”) in example (15). After the accented syllable, there is an abrupt tonal jump to a higher tone, so that the first syllable following the accented syllable starts with a higher tone. This can be heard and seen on the second syllable of (STU)-die-(retning) in example (15):


(15) a. Copenhagen Danish: What field of study do you study?
        "What study program do you take?"

b.           In this utterance, the accented syllable STU-(dieretning) has the lower tone on the accented syllable followed by a tonal jump to a higher tone on the next syllable which is typical of the basic tonal pattern in Copenhagen Danish:

The Copenhagen Danish intonation, also called “Standard Danish”, is taking over among young speakers all over Denmark. For example, the two Jutland speakers in our material overwhelmingly use the same tonal patterns as the Copenhagen speakers even though the Jutland varieties traditionally are characterized by a rising tone on the accented syllable.

The Funen Danish speaker in our material often uses a non-standard rise on the accented syllables. The high tone on the accented syllable may stretch over to the next unaccented syllable, but then it falls again. There is no abrupt tonal jump like between the accented syllable and the following unaccented syllables in Copenhagen Danish. In example (16), you can hear and see this rising accent melody on the syllables STU-(dieretning) (“study program”) and GÅR (“go” as in “you go”).


(16) Funen Danish: What field of study do you study?
                 (“What study program do you take?”)

Finally, please note that Danish speakers also have some other accent group melodies in addition to their basic accent group pattern. You can occasionally hear Copenhagen Danish speakers use rising accent melodies in the examples we present (for example, go back and listen to STU-(dieretning) in example (14) above). We will not discuss when speakers choose what tonal pattern because we focus on the general patterns. It is also not well described in the literature yet.


Tone accents in Norwegian and Swedish

In Danish, speakers keeping to one variety predominantly only two different accent melodies for accented syllables. These are so-called tone accents (Swedish ordaccenter; Norwegian tonelag).


Norwegian and Swedish has tone accents that are predetermined by the mental lexicon to go with specific words.


The choice between the two tone accents, called accent 1 and accent 2 in this presentation, is determined by the phonotactic rules and vocabulary rules of the speaker’s regional variety. It is thus not up to the individual speaker to pick the one or other.

If a speaker uses the wrong tone accent with a word, it will be heard as just that: wrong. In rare cases, the choice of tone accent may result in another word altogether (see example (17)-(18) below). However, even in these cases the pronunciation with the wrong tone accent will not cause problems for comprehension.

In example (17), you can hear (and see) the accent melodies of the two Norwegian words skrivet (pronounced skrive, pronounced with accent 1) and skrive (pronounced skrive, pronounced with accent 2). In example (18), you can hear and see the two Swedish words anden (with accent 1) and anden (with accent 2):


(17)       Norwegian (Sunnmøre) tone accents: accent 1 vs. accent 2.                                                                                

  1. Sunnmøre Norwegian (Accent 1): skrivet, pronounced skrive (”the document”)         
  2.    b. Sunnmøre Norwegian (Accent 2): skrive, pronounced skrive (“to write”)

    (18)       Swedish (Scania) tone accents: accent 1 vs. accent 2.                                                                             

    1. Scania Swedish (Accent 1): anden (”the duck”)            
    2.    b. Scania Swedish (Accent 2): anden (“the spirit”)

      The pronunciation of tone accent 1 and tone accent 2 is not identical all over Norway or all over Sweden. The accent melodies associated with tone accent 1 and tone accent 2 varies between different regions of the countries. But the difference between the two tone accents has to be distinguished on accented syllables in all varieties that use this distinction.

      Norwegian dialects are traditionally divided into low-tone and high-tone dialects, depending on the starting tone of accent 1. As you can hear and see in example (17a), in high-tone dialects like Sunnmøre Norwegian, accent 1 starts with a high tone followed by a clear fall, whereas accent 2 (17b) starts with a low, flat tone, followed by a rise and then followed by a fall again. In contrast, speakers of low-tone dialects (for example, the Southeast dialects spoken around Oslo) start accent 1 with a low, flat tone followed by a rise, whereas accent 2 starts with a high tone, followed by a fall, followed by a rise.

      This is a useful rule of thumb, but there are also dialects with mixed tone accent categories. In Vennesla Norwegian, spoken by our two South Norwegian speakers (see Which Danish, Norwegian and Swedish should you choose), accent 1 has a high-tone accent melody, i.e. it starts high and then falls to a low tone; but accent 2 has a low-tone accent, i.e. starts with a high tone, followed by a fall, followed by a rise. There are also some varieties that do not make use of any tone accent distinction.

      Also in Sweden, accent 1 and accent 2 melodies vary between different regions. Swedish researchers have suggested four different pairs of accent 1 vs. accent 2 melodies; and just like in Norwegian, there are also some varieties of Swedish that do not make use of any tone accent distinction.

      There is one more distinction to make when it comes to Swedish and Norwegian accents: it is a distinction between prominence levels. Accents can be noticeable; or very noticeable. This is the topic of the text Important information and very important information.


      Let the accents guide you when listening

      It is a good idea to listen for the accented syllables in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, because they will tell you which words in an utterance that give the most important information.

      Listen to this utterance and decide which words are accented. This is Copenhagen Danish, so the most salient tonal change is the tonal jump from a rather low tone (the accented syllable) to a much higher tone on the first following unstressed syllable:


      (19)       Which words are stressed? Listen for a low, stressed tone (the accent) followed by a higher, unstressed tone:

      Syns du man skal bru robotter i ældreplejen?

      (”Do you think you should use robots in elderlycare?”)


      In this section, we have presented accented syllables, which are formed by the combination of stressed syllable plus tonal movements, so-called accent melodies. Accents signal to the hearer that the word or expression that contains the accented syllables conveys important information.

      In Danish, each regional variety has a basic tonal pattern that is repeated frequently. Within this pattern there is exactly one tonal option for how to pronounce the accented syllable. In Norwegian and Swedish, there are so-called tone accents, accent 1 and accent 2. In rare cases, the tone accents can make the whole difference between words that sound the same with exception of the tone accent melody. The two-tone accents result in slightly more tonal variation in the accented syllable, but it is a very fine-tuned variation and difficult to hear for non-native speakers. The fact that the tone accent melodies in Norwegian and Swedish can be varied yet more depending on the prominence level of the word (see Accents: important information and very important information) brings in even more tonal variation.

      The accented syllables help dividing the stream of speech into chunks that are easier for the listener to process. The chunk of speech which starts with the accented syllable we call an accent group. That is the topic of the next section Accent groups: chunks of speech formed by accent melodies.



      Bruce, Gösta. 1998. Allmän och svensk prosodi. Praktisk Lingvistik 16. Lund: Institutionen för Lingvistik.

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

      Jortveit, Olav. 2010. Venneslamålet - ein sentral og standhaftig dialekt på Agder. Setesdalstrykk AS. (accessed January 26, 2022)

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

      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.


Last Updated 09.02.2023