Have you ever noticed the rise and fall of a person’s voice in conversation? That heightened “punch” as someone tells a story, makes a statement, or asks a question? This is intonation, or the vocal “highs” and “lows” that make the melody of a language. Listeners perceive this as pitch, which is created from the stretching or shortening of our vibrating vocal cords.
Speech follows a rhythm unique to each language. It’s like a “code” of power patterns which characterizes the way speech is used. If you take away all of the vowels and consonants in a sentence, you would be left with these power patterns. Intonation, rhythm, and stress patterns combine to form what is known as prosody.
When talking, voices naturally fluctuate depending on the context, intent, and emotion. Intonation either rises or falls with the mood of the speaker and the code of the language. Different intonation patterns carry different meanings. They will let someone know if the speaker is feeling happy or sad, sincere or sarcastic, asking a question or making a statement. Intonation more readily indicates the speaker's point of view compared to words and sentences alone. Take the following sentence in American English:
In this sentence, voice fluctuates downward on the final word in the phrase. Falling pitch communicates that the speaker wants coffee. This is not asking a question. Intonation acts as the punctuation of a sentence. The rise or fall introduces the phrase as a statement or question.
To generalize, a “rise” in pitch suggests an unfinished thought or an anticipated answer. The “fall” in pitch proposes a conclusion of a speaker’s turn or the dialogue in whole. As with any language, its complex nature allows for exceptions, but here is a generalized crash course for intonation in American English versus French. Follow the arrows to follow the rise and fall of pitch.
American English & French:
Yes / No Question:
It's good? ➚
C'est bon ? ➚
It's good. ➘
C'est bon. ➘
Now in longer sentences...
Yes / No Question:
Did you go to the roaster? ➚
Vous allez au torrefacteur ? ➚
I purchased the coffee beans this morning ➘
J'ai acheté des grains de café ce matin ➘
WH / How Questions: (Where, When, Why...)
Who's drinking iced coffee? ➘
Qui boit du café glacé ? ➘
American English & French:
That’s cool! ➚
C’est super ! ➘
In French, the meaning of a sentence is primarily strengthened by adding words. This makes the emphasis “pop” alongside using intonation, a secondary characteristic. American-English can “pop” sentence emphasis equally by intonation alone.
I asked for the double espresso.
(Emphasis on "I" to clarify it's "me" who requested the espresso)
Pour ma part, j'ai demandé le double espresso.
(Emphasis referring to oneself by personal pronouns "ma" and "je")
The French language does not rely on intonation in a sentence to change its meaning. This is the opposite for English. Depending on word emphasis, various meanings can be implied. In French, sentences change meaning by, once more, adding extra words to the sentence.
Ce n'est pas moi qui ai dit qu'elle avait commandé un café crème.
(It wasn't me who said that said she ordered a latte)
"I" didn't say that she ordered the latte.
Je n'ai pas dit qu'elle a commandé ce café crème-ci.
(I didn't say that she ordered this latte here.)
I didn't say she ordered "the" latte.
In American English...
Intonation is more complex than making statements and asking questions. Depending on the language, pitch alters the “code” in which a message is to be perceived.
Take American English. It is a stress-timed language where power-punched words, and syllables in a word, appear regularly in an irregular format throughout a sentence. Word emphasis can therefore be placed anywhere. This can change meaning, emotion, and reduced speech sounds. For example:
I’d like a ➚ cup of coffee. (Not a gallon of coffee)
I’d like a cup of ➚ coffee. (Not a cup of tea)
I ➚ ordered it! (Said with excitement and energy)
I ordered ➚ it? (Said with question and doubt)
Reduced Speech Sounds:
Cuppa coffee (kuh-puh-caw-fee)
Cup of coffee (kuh-up-uh-v-caw-fee)
In French, word emphasis is based on syllables. Syllables are the breakdown of stress patterns in a word (think: syl-la-bles). French is a syllable-timed language, meaning each syllable gets equal pronunciation time. In this circumstance, speech sounds are not reduced because there is always equal time to pronounce each syllable in the phrase.
Je suis allée au coffee shop
(I went to the coffee shop)
Je prends mon café avec du sucre
(I take sugar with my coffee)
Speakers of American English would not pronounce a direct French translation the same way. English is a stress-timed language, therefore, it is not typical to emphasize the final syllable in American English, nor is it typical to articulate each syllable. French, on the other hand, a syllable-timed language. Its stress can predictably be found on the last syllable of a word. The French “code” their language differently though the goal may be the same.
When “coding” languages with the melody of our native language, the result is an accented rendition of speech. Organizing speech sounds into melodies specific to the conversational dialogue is necessary to being fully understood. Correctly pronouncing vowel and consonant sounds is not enough to guarantee understanding. Speakers need to “code” for melody and speech sound pronunciation to be best understood.
Take a listen to Margo Marindale’s ode to Paris from the film Paris, je t’aime (2006) to hear her American English patterns layered onto French.