Introduction to Pitch Boundaries

The purpose of pitch boundaries

Pitch boundaries use intonation to organize interaction between speakers of English. Pitch boundaries are best known for conveying whether a speaker is asking a question or making a statement by raising or lowering the pitch at the end of a sentence (the higher pitch signifying a question, the lower, a statement). This broad view is over-simplified, and often inaccurate. At a more subtle level, pitch boundaries also signal a listener to take a turn being a speaker or to wait for the speaker to give more information. In addition to signaling turn taking, pitch boundaries also show emotion, such as confidence and assertiveness.

How to create a pitch boundary

Pitch boundaries are found at the end of intonation units (See Intonation Units lesson), with the more significant pitch boundaries often occurring at the ends of sentences. Pitch boundaries are tied to pitch words (See Introduction to Pitch Words lesson) because they begin at or after the final pitch word of an intonation unit, and continue until the end of the intonation unit.

Effect of pitch words on pitch boundaries

To demonstrate the relationship between pitch words and pitch boundaries, the following examples contain a single intonation unit and a falling pitch boundary at the end of the sentence.

English intonation unit more listen now

The final pitch word is the word London. The falling pitch boundary steps down through the word tomorrow and ends at the lowest pitch of the sentence.

In the example

English intonation unit more listen now

the final pitch word, London, is also the final word of the intonation unit, so the pitch falls more dramatically after the stressed syllable of the word London.

The example

English intonation unit more listen now

shows a single-syllable final pitch word, Nice, which is also the final word of the intonation unit. The pitch must fall from the high pitch word to the low of the pitch boundary within a single syllable. When this happens, it may be difficult for the speaker to reach the same low level of the previous examples, but the interpretation by the listener will be the same as if the speaker did reach the ultimate low final pitch.

Statement verses question pitch boundaries

A question is any utterance representing a speaker desiring information from the listener. There are six major types of questions:

  1. Yes/no questions
  2. Declarative questions
  3. Wh-questions
  4. Tag questions
  5. Choice questions
  6. Echo questions

Statements and questions can both have falling or rising pitch boundaries, depending on the intended meaning. While it is true that statements are more likely to have falling pitch boundaries than questions, there are many instances of the opposite case.


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