Friday, 6 May 2011


A correspondent from Hong Kong, in an email with the subject line “English Pronunication” [sic], asked a number of straightforward questions about articulatory details of English phonetics. But the last paragraph of his message had a sting in the tail.
Finally, thank you for writing … such a good book on English
intonation. I think it will be perfect if rise-fall and level tones
are included in the book as well.

What? They ARE included in the book!

I could not forbear to reply,
The rise-fall tone is covered in my intonation book (p. 217). In my view it makes sense to treat it as a subvariety of the Fall. Likewise, I treat the mid-level nuclear tone as a subvariety of the (low) Rise (p. 224). Did you read the book to the end?

Crestfallen, the correspondent thanked me.
I'm glad that your book (English Intonation - An Introduction) covers
the 2 tones. I've been studying the book for 2 years but I haven't
finished it yet. Today, I'm studying p.152.

Moral: before writing to an author to criticize his work for its perceived shortcomings, make sure you have finished reading it.

I don’t think I’ve written here or anywhere else about my decision to treat the English rise-fall nuclear tone as a subvariety of the fall tone rather than as an independent tone. In this my approach is different from that of Halliday, for example, who treats it as separate, while uniting high and low falls as the same basic tone. For me, the fall tone covers O’Connor and Arnold’s High Fall, Low Fall and Rise-fall. All have in common the physical characteristic of a nuclear pitch movement that either falls throughout or ends in a fall, ending always on a lowish pitch, with the tail (if present) having a low level terminal tendency. In terms of pragmatic meaning, all share the general characteristic of being what Brazil calls “proclaiming”, typically implying definitiveness / finality / assertion. Any sentence type may have a Fall, but with exclamations it is obligatory: they are always said with a Fall of some kind (including the possibility of a rise-fall).

• What a reˈmarkable \hat! (excited, enthusiastic)
• What a reˈmarkable \hat! (deadpan, unimpressed)
• What a reˈmarkable ^hat! (impressed, perhaps gossipy)

• * What a reˈmarkable /hat! (ungrammatical except as an echo question)

As anyone who has taught intonation analysis to NS students knows, the inevitable response to demonstrating the rise-fall is that the class breaks out into giggles.

Pedagogically speaking, I have no evidence that treating the rise-fall as a variety of fall helps NNSs understand what is going on. But it seems a reasonable thing to do. Learners should only tackle it after the basic tones (rise, fall, fall-rise) have been thoroughly learnt and understood. Otherwise there’s a serious danger of students confusing the rise-fall with the fall-rise. (For NSs who might confuse them, just ask whether or not it makes you giggle.)

That’s why I relegated discussion of the rise-fall to the back of the book, in the section devoted to Beyond the Three Ts: Finer Distinctions of Tone.


  1. In your book, on page 260 of the Appendix, what are the symbols used for high and low prehead and rhythmic stress (finer distinction)?

  2. Dinora:
    high prehead: ¯ macron 00AF
    low prehead: _ underscore 005F
    non-low rhythmic stress: ° degree sign 00B0
    low rhythmic stress: ˳ modifier letter low ring 02F3

  3. Of course, we positive-politeness Yanks wouldn't dream of ending a sincere exclamation on anything but a rise.

  4. Well, to be fair, he did say, "I think it *will* be perfect if they *are* included," not, "I think it would be perfect if they were included."

    If a native speaker had used exactly that construction, you'd never have assumed that they were claiming to have read the whole book yet - they're just eagerly looking forward to finding out whether it will meet their standard of perfection as they go on.

    Maybe the moral is not to underestimate your correspondents' grasp of English? ;o)

  5. Possibly, Philippa, although a student who takes 2 years to read 150 pages is unlikely to graduate egregia cum laude. Still, let us be charitable; perhaps he was busy with other things.

  6. I think Phillippa is both right and wrong - right about what the correspondent most likely meant; wrong that the correspondent's failure to convey that meaning was in any sense due to their proficiency being underestimated. On the contrary, it is the correspondent's poor grasp of English pragmatics that leads to the impression they were criticising the book.