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Human-Robot Interaction Lab Sønderborg

Tonal movements with functions concerning the whole utterance

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

  • Accent groups: accented syllable + following non-accent syllables. Read more here
  • Tonal movements with utterance functions.

    This is the section on tonal movements with utterance functions. We are going to discuss two kinds: end intonation and global signaling of utterance function.


    End intonation = the melody and meaning of utterance endings

    If you search YouTube for “question intonation”, you get loads and loads of video clips, all explaining the same thing, at least for English:

  • Yes/no questions should be pronounced with a “rising intonation” at the end…
  • …whereas statements and wh-questions (questions starting with what, who, where etc.) should be pronounced with a “falling intonation” at the end.

    Modern research on real conversation has shown that this claim about end intonation in different question types does not hold: it is a possible way of asking questions, but it is not the only way. Rather, the choice between rising and falling end intonation rather depends on the context and what communicative meanings the speaker wants to convey to the listener.

    Still, the idea of rising end intonation in questions is so old and has been so influential that the same claim has also been made for other languages. For example, the claim has been investigated and refuted at least for Danish and Stockholm Swedish.

    So what about the interaction between questions and intonation in the Scandinavian languages: is intonation used (i) to mark the end of a question, and maybe even (ii) to signal the function of certain question types?


    Obligatory end intonation in Swedish

    In Swedish, tones are obligatorily used to mark the end of all utterances, including questions. There are two end-of-utterance tones: a falling-to-low tone and one rising tone.

    In Swedish, rising end intonation does not “mean” that the utterance is a question, as in that old claim about English end intonation. In fact, in Central Swedish the high end intonation tone is hardly ever used with ordinary yes-no questions, i.e. questions that start with the verb (“Do you...?”/”Can you…?” etc.), even though this is a frequently used question type (for question types, see Question types). However, in our material there is an example of a Central Swedish yes/no question with rising end intonation, so it is obviously not impossible. Listen and compare the question in example (31a) and the question with a high-end intonation in example (31b). Both function as the same kind of question:

    (31)       a.     Har du någonsin sett en robot?

                            "Have you ever seen a robot?"

    b. Listen to the low end intonation in this Central Swedish question:


    c. Listen to the high end intonation in this Central Swedish question:


    Rising end intonation in Swedish rather seems to signal that the speaker is friendly and interested in the hearer. It can also be used with statements, as in (32):

    (32)       a.     Jag gör det efter jobbet i kväll.
                            "I’ll do that after work tonight."

                     b.     Listen to the rising end intonation in this Scania Swedish question:


    However, it is our impression that the rising end intonation ends in a higher tone with questions and in such statements that are produced with the intent to make the speaker to respond than in statements that are used mainly to inform like in (32).


    Optional end intonation in Norwegian

    In Norwegian, end intonation tones can be used in certain cases; in other cases, it cannot be used. The rules are rather complicated, and so we will not get into detail. Let it suffice to say that end intonation in Norwegian is never mandatory.

    In Norwegian, a very low tone or a very high tone at the end of an utterance is usually NOT a case of end intonation at all, but it is the last tone of the accent melody. Norwegian accent melody tones are often distributed throughout the accent group as a whole, see Accent group: chunks of speech formed by accented melodiesand big accents can be signaled by enhancing the rise of a high final accent tone or the fall of a low final accent tone.

    In example (33), the high tone at the end of the utterance is the high final accent tone of the big accent 2 melody on utdannelse (“education”). The rising end intonation is pronounced successively on the two last syllables of the accent group: uthigh to low-danturning point-nelselow to high.

    (33)       a.     Hva slags (30 ms) utdannelse har du?

                            "What kind of (pause of 30 milliseconds) education do you have?"

    b. Listen to the rising end intonation on intonation in this Southeast Norwegian question:


    The high tone at the end of the utterance in (33) is an accent melody tone, but the low tone in example (34) is falling end intonation. The last accent is a Southeast Norwegian accent 1 melody, which starts with a low tone and ends with a high tone. The fall at the end of the utterance thus is caused by a low-end intonation tone.

    (34)       a.     Æh hva med andre dialekter?
                             ”Eh what about other dialects?”

                      b.     Listen to the falling end intonation in this Southeast Norwegian question:


    No end intonation in Danish

    For Danish, research has shown that end intonation is not used in Standard Danish and in most other varieties – and in those varieties, in which can be used, for example in Bornholm Danish, it seems to be optional and is not used with every utterance.

    The last accent group of an utterance usually follows the normal pattern for accent groups. It does not end in a noticeably higher or lower tone than could be expected from any other accent group. Listen to the question in example (34), in which the last word consists of a single, accented syllable.

    In this Funen Danish variety, accent melody means that the accented syllable is pronounced with a rising tone; but a moderately rising tone. If you compare the tone height of SEKS with the tonal turning point of previous rising accented syllables, it is not a remarkably high tone, but rather a middle tone: a little lower than the previous accented syllable SKO(-len) but a little higher than the preceding unaccented syllables da je var (for Danish accent group melodies, see Accent groups: chunks of speech formed by accented melodies.

    (35)       a.     Jeg startede i skolen da jeg var seks.

                            ”I began school when I was six.”

    b.     Listen to the middle end tone of the rising accent melody in this Funen Danish  statement:


    “Global signaling of intonation” in Danish

    In Danish, there is instead another tonal principle at work: the tone height of the accent groups gradually sinks throughout an utterance. This is called declination or downdrift, both words having meanings that have to do with “lowering” the tone.

    If you measure the turning points of the accent movements and draw a line through them, you can get a visual estimation of how steeply the declination slopes from the first accent group of the utterance to the last, see the utterance from example (35) again, repeated here as example (36):

    (36)       Using the utterance declination to signal the communicative function:


    In Funen Danish like in example (34), the turning points are rise-falls, forming tonal movement “peaks”. In Copenhagen Danish, the turning points are falls and you measure the lowest point of each accent syllable.

    Of course, it takes more than one accented syllable to be able to compare the tone height of the accented syllables to each other. A Danish listener probably notices unconsciously if the accent groups are spoken in a gradually sinking tone height and how steep the declination is.

    The main finding of Danish research on intonation in different utterance types is that the steepness of the declination varies with the communicative function of the utterance. Thus, in statements like in example (34) above the accented syllables usually form a clearly falling declination.

    In questions, the declination is less steep. The specific question type also influences the pronunciation. Question-word questions (for example At what age did you begin school?) have a clearly falling declination, almost as much as for statements. “Normal” yes/no questions with subject-verb inversion (for example Do you think robots should be used in elderlycare?) have a moderately falling declination. Finally, in so-called declarative questions, which are yes/no questions without inversion (for example (So) you are a little critical of robots?), there is no declination at all, but the first and the last accented syllables are spoken at approximately the same tone height.

    The Danish phonetician and phonologian Nina Grønnum illustrates the declination in difference utterance types like in example (37):

    (37) The declination in Danish utterances with different communicative functions

    Please note that the steepness of the slope in different kinds of communicative utterances as shown in (37) is a general tendency. There can be individual differences and exceptions. In utterances from real communicative situations, both the chosen accent melodies and their tone height in relation to each other may vary more.

    In example (38) below, the same speaker first produces a question-word question Hvad med en anden dialect? (“How about another dialect?”); but upon finishing that question, he immediately reformulates it as a yes/no question: Snakker du en an(den) dialect? (“Do you speak another dialect?”). You can see, and hear, that the declination of the question-word question (blue line) has a steeper fall then the declination of the following yes-no question (red line):

    (38)       a.     Hvad med en anden dialekt?      Snakker du en anden dialekt?

                            ”What about another dialect?    Do you speak a nother dialect?”

    b.     Compare the declination in the two different question types:


    Now listen and compare the corresponding accent groups in the two questions in (38) to each other:

    (39)       a.     The first accent group in each utterance:

    Hvad med en anden (”How about an-”) vs. Snakker du en (”Do you speak an-”)

    b.     The second accent group in each utterance, which is identical in wording:

    anden dia- (“-other dia-“): Hvad-med question vs. Snakker-du question

    c.     The last accent group in each utterance, also with identical wordings:

    -lekt (“-lect”): Hvad-med question vs. Snakker-du question


    Summary of end intonation and global signaling of intonation

    • In Swedish, end intonation is obligatory, either a falling or a rising end intonation. Speakers use end intonation to signal that the utterance is coming to an end.
    • In Norwegian, end intonation is optional and restricted by certain conditions of use. However, in opposition to Swedish, accent melodies are distributed throughout the accent group as a whole, which means that the last accent group of an utterance very often displays a final accent tone which rises to a noticeably high tone or falls to a noticeably low tone, depending on the accent melodies of the regional variety in question.
    • In Danish, end intonation is usually not used. Instead, declination is used as a “global” signal of utterance function. The tone height in the accented syllables in the first accent group to the last accent group are lowered in comparison to each other. The steepness of the declination varies depending on the utterances communicative function of the utterance.



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Last Updated 09.02.2023