What is Intonation?
As in music, intonation is the melody, the way in which the tone varies in pitch and the way in which certain words or syllables are stressed or emphasised.
As a quick introductory example, think of the word ‘hello’. There are various different ways in which this one word can be spoken.
Think of how you would say this word in the following situations:
- when greeting your boss
- when greeting your best friend
- when answering the phone
- when approaching an attractive (wo)man you don’t know
- when talking to a small baby
By all means say these out loud, so that the differences are really clear.
You can drastically change the meaning of a whole sentence with this method.
Here are a few fun intonation examples.
Emphasising a Different Word in a Sentence
If we saw the sentence “I didn’t say you stole my money” in an email, how would you understand it?
Believe it or not, this sentence can have seven different meanings, based on the intonation. I’ll indicate the stressed word by bold italics.
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (someone else said it)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (emphasises the negative)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole it, I just didn’t actually say it)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (someone else stole it)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (didn’t steal my money, but you do have it)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole someone else’s money)
- I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole something else of mine)
On a serious note (my apologies), this does show how easy it is to misunderstand written communication. It is worth taking the time to make sure that the reader will understand what you write in the way you meant it. That was enough serious stuff …
Which version do you think Merkel is saying to Putin? 🙂
You can try a similar exercise yourself with these sentences:
- “She isn’t driving to London today.”
- “He didn’t tell you to fight him.” (emphasising the word ‘to’ is not necessary)
- “I didn’t shoot him yesterday.”
One Word, a Thousand Meanings
At the start of this post, we looked at the word ‘hello’. There is another single word that has many meanings and it’s the word ‘really’.
This has a very broad spectrum of meaning, ranging from “That’s most interesting, please carry on” all the way over to “That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard”.
Imagine a teenage girl saying this is a bored, drawn out, eye-rolling way and you’ll get some idea of the power of one word, given the right intonation.
Wonderful Film Example
Lastly, there is a very underrated file, namely The 51st State, which came out in 2001.
There are a few ‘adult’ words in the clip (well, the whole film really), so if you prefer not to hear such language, it’s probably best if you skip it.
I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there is a really funny scene in which subtle intonation differences have harsh consequences for an unfortunate chemist by the name of Lawrence.
The first minute of the following clip shows this.
Did you get the phrase that was causing the problem? Can you spot the intonation difference?
The film is worth watching in its entirety. It shows a side of English culture that is not usually seen.
Without intonation, speech would be very dull and (literally) monotonous. Even in the early stages of learning a new language, try not to neglect this important aspect.
It might even keep you out of jail and help you avoid telling the policeman “I didn’t burn down that house” 😮
Have you had unexpected problems with emphasis? Please tell us about it in the comments below.