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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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4 What is intonation?

Pitch variation is caused by the rise and fall of the voice when we speak. Phonetically speaking, pitch is determined by the rate of vibration of the vocal folds; the faster they vibrate, the higher the pitch. In all languages, pitch variation is used for linguistic purposes. In many languages (e.g. Chinese, Vietnamese) pitch is used to differentiate words or grammatical meaning. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, ma pronounced in a high tone means mother, while if it is pronounced in a circumflex tone (high-low-high) it means horse. These are examples of tone languages. Pitch in Spanish and English does not differentiate word meanings, it is employed to convey discourse-related meanings. That is, different pitch contours specify different types of utterances (e.g. question vs. statement) and are spread over the whole utterance, whether it be short or long. Such a use of pitch is called intonation. Intonation – generally in combination with tempo – is also used to express emotions. The expression of emotions also varies between cultures, and it is worth practising, or at least practising interpreting our interlocutors’ emotions. In this course, we will focus on the pragmatic meanings of intonation only.