Intonation- the rise and fall of the voice as we speak -is common to all languages and affects the way our speech is understood and interpreted. It is distinct from accent, although regional accents may well have a common intonation. For example, the regional accent of south Wales is often described as “sing-song” due to its musicality. Intonation also differs from stress (the emphasis we place on different parts of a word), which can also vary by country or region, most notably in the differences between British and American English.
Intonation in English can be distinguished by two main types: grammatical and attitudinal. Grammatical refers to the intonation we use for certain sentences structures, for example questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer usually have an upward intonation at the end, while questions that begin with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ generally have a downward intonation.
Attitudinal intonation expresses the mood and emotions of the speaker. This type of intonation can alter the way our words are interpreted, without us having to change what we say. For example, the phrase “oh, thanks,” delivered with a flat intonation could be interpreted as sarcastic or insincere, while “oh, thanks,” delivered with an upward intonation could be interpreted as indicating pleasant surprise or delight.
Word stress is the emphasis we place on syllables within a word. It is an integral part of English and impacts the way our speech is understood. Many languages use word stress, but its use in English can be tricky, because the placement of the stress within the word is not predictable.
Native English speakers acquire correct word stress naturally, but people learning the language can face difficulties in both understanding and being understood if they are not familiar with which syllables to emphasise within a word. Stressing the wrong syllable can make words sound strange and difficult to understand, but regular listening exercises are key to developing correct word stress.
However, it is important to note that there are variations between British and American English because of the differences in pronunciation of certain words. For example in the word ‘address’, the stress is placed on the first syllable in American English and on the second syllable in British English. Both pronunciations are correct and are simply the product of regional variations in the way English is spoken.