In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intonation

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Tutorial Articles and Book Chapters
  • Edited Collections
  • Discreteness
  • Pitch Accent
  • Phrase Accent
  • Phrasing
  • Alignment
  • Rhythm
  • ToBI
  • L1 Acquisition of Intonation
  • L2 Acquisition of Intonation
  • Meaning
  • Information Structure
  • Discourse
  • Vocative Chants
  • Features Other than F0
  • Paralinguistics

Linguistics Intonation
Carlos Gussenhoven, Yiya Chen, Sónia Frota, Pilar Prieto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0072


Intonation is the tonal structure of linguistic expressions, which is not directly due to tones of the lexical items or to morpho-syntactic categories, and its realization together with paralinguistic effects. If tones come with the words or the morpho-syntactic categories, they are termed “lexical tones,” and languages that have them are “tone languages.” Intonational tones appear at the beginnings or ends of prosodic constituents (boundary tones) or on certain words (pitch accents). Tones at prosodic boundaries signal the relevant phrase structure, usually that of the intonational phrase. Pitch accents as well as boundary tones may be contrastive, in which case the different tone options signal discoursal meanings, like theme versus rheme, nonfinality, interrogativity, finality, etc. By the side of tone, structural intonation may include nontonal phonological elements, most strikingly quantity (vowel length), as has been found in West Greenlandic and Shekgalagari. European languages have various intonational pitch accent assignment rules, the most striking of which signal focus meanings (“information structure”). English for instance deletes pitch accents after the focus. Intonation systems vary in complexity, like any aspect of the linguistic structure. Intonation systems of West Germanic languages are among the most complex ever described. In addition to intonational tone structure, intonation includes the paralinguistic use of pitch. Often, paralinguistic intonation is more striking than structural intonation. Drawing the line between them is a long-standing issue, which is often believed will remain unresolved for some time to come. Languages may signal the same function either structurally or paralinguistically. For instance, Stockholm Swedish has been described as signaling the difference between questions and statements paralinguistically, while Norwegian is characterized as having different tones for statements and questions. Intonation is increasingly included in language descriptions. It is also often described in combination with a language’s lexical tone structure. The way in which intonation interacts with the morphosyntax in expressing information structure is a widely debated issue in European languages in particular. The debate has tended to be conducted within either a phonological setting or a syntactic setting, although, more recently, work has appeared that attempts to bridge that gap. Discourse studies deal with the role of both structural and paralinguistic variation in duration and pitch in signaling speaker attitudes, cohesion, and turn management. We are indebted to Gorka Elordieta, Jörg Peters, and Tomas Riad for providing information on Basque, German, and Scandinavian, respectively. This work was supported by an Internationalization Grant awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Forms and Functions of Prosodic Structure NWO 236-70-002).


A number of recent textbooks are available. Textbooks tend to have an orientation toward English, such as Cruttenden 1997, or they are specifically about (British) English, such as Wells 2006. A wide-ranging and very readable book is Ladd 2008. Half of Gussenhoven 2004 deals with general topics, the other half containing summary descriptions of languages.

  • Cruttenden, A. 1997. Intonation. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166973

    First edition 1986. Accessible textbook setting out the main concepts. It is written from the perspective of the British descriptive tradition, but it includes treatments of the autosegmental intonation model and a cross-linguistic chapter.

  • Gussenhoven, C. 2004. The phonology of tone and intonation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616983

    Phonetics and phonology of intonation, with an emphasis on the interaction between lexical and intonational tone. Contains an account of paralinguistic meaning (“biological codes”). With detailed exemplifications of Pierrehumbert’s model for a number of languages, including French, Japanese, and English.

  • Ladd, D. R. 2008. Intonational phonology. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808814

    Sets out the issues arising from the introduction of the autosegmental-metrical model, both phonetic and phonological. There is a treatment on pitch range in phonology and in phonetic implementation. Deals with focus and accentuation in different European languages. First edition published in 1996.

  • Wells, J. C. 2006. Intonation: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Brief and clear, with lots of illustrations of British English intonation (some of which are included in the CD), in the British descriptive tradition. Takes the place of J. D. O’Connor and G. Arnold, Intonation of Colloquial English (London: Longman, 1973) which is outdated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.