High Pitch Words
Purpose of high pitch words
In American English intonation, the purpose of a high pitch word is to tell the listener that the word conveys new information and is the main topic of the sentence. Because of their topic-defining nature, high pitch words are one of the most common tools for directing an English conversation.
How to create high pitch words
A high pitch word is easily detectable because the stressed syllable of that word is said at a higher pitch than the syllables that surround it. In addition to the higher pitch, the stressed syllable of that word is usually said louder and for more time than the surrounding words.
Examples of high pitch words
The high pitch words of the following dialog are bolded, and their change in pitch is shown. A line-by-line analysis follows.
(The initial pitch of each sentence is a starting pitch, lessons coming soon. The change in pitch contour after the stressed syllable of the high pitch word is a pitch boundary, lessons coming soon)
Line 1: Speaker A sets the topic as Asia.
Line 2: Speaker B offers two new directions for the conversation to go: Japan and China
Line 3: Speaker A chooses to continue along the topic of Japan
Line 4: Speaker B speaks more specifically about Japan, first noting the region, and then adding another intonation unit to be specific as to the city in Japan he visited.
High pitch words in yes/no questions
When asking yes/no questions, the location of the high pitch word in the sentence guides the answer to the question.
"Did Sally make coffee for this morning's meeting?"
has a number of possible specific answers which the questioner may be seeking.
If the answer was "yes" all the different questions could be answered
"Yes, she did."
However, if Sally didn't make the coffee, or didn't make it for the meeting this morning, there are three different options for the answer. Each answer corresponds to the question number above.
A: No, Jackie made it.
B: No, she made the cookies.
C: No, she made it for the afternoon meeting.
The correct answer lies in realizing where the speaker of the question placed the high pitch word.
To sum up:
High pitch words:
- Convey information new to the dialog
- Guide the direction of the conversation
- Have a stressed syllable of the word said at a higher pitch than the syllables surrounding it
- Have a stressed syllable of the word usually said louder and for more time than those of surrounding words
Students learning ESL should learn to identify and create all pitch word variations for fluent spoken English.
Review related lessons:
Introduction to American English pitch words