19.1 Phonetic & Phonological Analysis: What is pitch? How does it impact language?

Chapter 19

19.1 Explain the intricacies of pitch as it pertains to language



Pitch can be low or high as in music. It is a phonatory prosody. It is an auditory property that enables a listener to place a sound on a scale going from low to high. It refers to the highness or lowness of voice, determined by the frequency of vibration of the vocal cords. Its utilization in speech includes tone and intonation.

The pitch of a sound depends on the rate of vibration of the vocal cords. In a sound with a high pitch, there is higher frequency of vibration than in a sound with a low pitch.

Frequency is a technical term referring to the number of complete repetitions of vibrations in air pressure occurring in a second. The unit of frequency measurement is the hertz (Hz) e.g. if the vocal cords make 220 complete opening and closing movements I a second, then the frequency of the sound is equal to 220 Hz/s. In practice, when a speech sound goes up in frequency, it also goes up in pitch.

 The phonetic and phonological features of pitch

A phonation prosodic features Vocal cords vibrate at different frequencies and thus voice can be produced at different pitches.

Pitch variation is caused by

a) Stretching and tensing the vocal chords – the more tense the higher the pitch.

b) Change the pressure below the vocal cords – the higher the sub glottal pressure

the higher the pitch.

Example 1a – from low to high

Many kinds of information can be conveyed by variation in pitch i.e.

  1. Personal characteristics of the speaker e.g. sex, age, emotional status.
  2. To mark the boundaries of syntactic units. We use pitch to mark the completion of a grammatical sentence. The last syllable is a lower pitch than it would have been if it had been in a non-final position. Depending on how it is said, the sentence, “I am late” can be a statement of fact or an expression of surprise. But generally, if the word “late” comes at the end, it is rendered in a low pitch. But if in a medial position, it is higher.

Questions are marked with a higher pitch. Incomplete utterances also often have higher pitches.

  1. To teach the meaning of a word. In tonal languages, pitch varies meaning e.g.
Chinese Ma (mother) Ma (cold)
Dholuo Tho (death) Tho (dew) Tho (exclamation)
Kendo (fire place) Kendo (again) Kendo (to marry)
Mara (mine) Mara (mother in law)
Ora (brother in law) Ora (send me)

Speakers of language vary the pitch continuously when they talk. Pitch and pitch

changes are utilized in language in two distinct ways.

Variation of pitch may be related to relatively long stretches of speech which may be

mainly syllables in length and which correspond to relatively large grammatical units

such as the sentence e.g.

What did you put in my drink, Jane? (unhappiness)

What did you put in my drink, Jane? (name of the drink)


Pitch variation used this way is called intonation i.e. it covers a whole sentence.


Intonation refers to the voice or pitch contour that can be utilized to change a sentence e.g. from a statement to an interrogative. Intonation therefore is meaningful pitch variations often characterizing long stretches of speech which may be many syllables in length and usually large grammatical units such as a sentence and is often used to distinguish statements from certain kinds of questions. Two sentences in English can be exactly the same phonetically except for the overall pitch contour or intonation of the utterance.

He left for you to follow (falling pitch means statement of fact)

He left direction for you to follow (rising pitch means surprise)

Forms of intonation

Particular speech patterns in sentences are refereed to as intonation groups. They are

also called tone units. In a stretch of words or syllables, the intonation group is marked

by different boundaries namely:

Pause: This can be filled or unfilled. The unfilled pause is marked by silence. The filled pause is marked by different sounds such as /a/ and /m/ in RP. These sounds are usually used at the end of boundaries. If they are placed where there are no boundaries, it symbolizes hesitation. The pause occurs as the speaker changes from one pitch pattern to another. It is often very brief and is unfilled, it is hardly noticeable. The intonation pauses occur at different places in an utterance.

  • At major constituent boundaries e.g. between subject and predicate or between two sentences. The more prominent the boundary is the longer the pause. Pauses tend to be longer when constituent boundaries involve a new topic.
  • Before words occurring to lexical content. The words preceded by a pause are often difficult to guess in advance e.g. high lexical content words in nouns, phrases, verb phrases or adverbial phrases. For instance, in “The boy went home”, “boy”, “went” and “home” are the high content words.


The intonation boundary is marked by lengthening the final syllable of the intonation contour. The lengthening acts as a pause substitute and carries a final pitch movement e.g. on his way to the station, he saw a boy.

Utilization of pitch

Utilized in languages in two different ways.


Pitch variation that is related to relatively long stretches of speech. The stretches

correspond to sentences.

Gives intonation contrasts (contours) the intonation contours signal distinct kinds of

meaning. E.g.

i) I am informing you

ii) I am sure you do not know

iii) I am not pleased with this information

iv) Continue

v) I agree

vi) different functions of a string of words

Statement  ̄ ̇ ̇↘ ..

Question _..↗ ̇ ̇

Exclamation ___ .↗ ̇ ̇


Pitch variation that is related to short stretches of speech – syllable length, words

Gives tonal contrasts.

Used to indicate different meaning of words. /

/                           \                         ∨                                ∧                  ___

Rise                 fall                    fall-rise               rise – fall

Mandarin Chinese

  1. ba __ – eight
  2. ba / – to uproot
  3. ba ∨ – to hold
  4. ba \ – a narrow


One – yes, see

He – give, there is

Iria – those (near), those (of long ago), darken, sea


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s