How You Say It Matters: Intonation

In the 1970s, Heathrow Airport in London hired a group of Indian and Pakistani women to serve food in its employee cafeteria. While the British baggage handlers complained that the servers were rude, the servers felt that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither group could figure out why these problems were occurring. 

Linguist John J. Gumperz from the University of California at Berkeley was hired to help. Professor Gumperz was a sociolinguist.  Sociolinguistics combines linguistics, anthropology, and sociology. Gumperz created a subfield of sociolinguistics which is known as interactional sociolinguistics. This subfield is devoted to studying verbal exchanges in varied social situations. It is particularly involved in analyzing discourse across cultures to determine why misunderstandings take place. Some of the areas that are focused on include intonation, pauses, and specific expressions.

Professor Gumperz determined that the conflict at Heathrow Airport centered around the way that the word “gravy” was produced. When diners ordered meat, they were asked if they wanted gravy to go with it. The English women who had previously served the food posed the question used a rising intonation and a single word – “Gravy?” When the Indian and Pakistani women asked the question, they used a falling intonation and the same single word – “Gravy.”  (For explanations of intonation, rising intonation, and falling intonation please see the descriptions below.)

According to Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, the statement was very different when a rising intonation instead of a falling intonation was used. While a rising intonation sounded like ‘Would you like gravy?’ a falling intonation was interpreted to mean ‘This is gravy. Take it or leave it.’
 (Source: “John J. Gumperz, Linguist of Cultural Interchange, Dies at 91” by Margalit Fox, The New York Times, April 2, 2013.)

Accent modification programs aim to increase the overall intelligibility of the speech of non-native speakers of English. The misunderstanding that was just described illustrates the importance of considering all aspects of a non-native speaker’s communication skills in English when designing an accent modification program. While the correct production of the sounds of English is typically the major focus, attention should also be given to other factors that can impact intelligibility. One of these factors is intonation. Intonation usually refers to the pitch variations that distinguish one type of utterance from another one. Two of the most basic types of intonation patterns are rising and falling patterns. A rising pattern is used by native speakers of English when asking a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” The pitch of the voice rises at the end, e.g., “Have you finished your homework?”  On the other hand, a falling pattern is typically utilized for declarative sentences (statements), imperative sentences (commands), and questions that start with words like who, what, when, where, why, which, and how.  For example, “I am coming home,” “Clean your room,” and “When will you be ready?” The pitch of the voice is lowered at the end of the statement or question.

If you are frequently misunderstood because of your accent, an accent modification program can be the solution that you have been looking for.