Tonic, tone, teachable

In my previous post I argued that ELT devoted too much time to the stress–timed nature of English, but at the same time I salvaged one aspect of rhythm from the wreckage that I had created, which was tonic stress. Tonic stress, as you know, refers to the most-stressed word in a short piece spoken English (the word time in ‘What time is it?’, for example). In coursebooks it is usually called sentence stress, whilst more academic descriptions of pronunciation refer to it as nuclear stress. (Talk about making things unnecessarily complicated – three names for the same thing!). I’d like to take a slightly longer look at tonic stress in this post, and also at a related term, which is tone.

Tone is the movement of the voice from one pitch to another. A fall tone, for example, is the voice coming down from a high pitch to a lower one, whilst a rise is a movement from low to high. Tone and tonic stress are inextricably related because the tone (i.e. the change in pitch) occurs at the tonic syllable. So if we come back to ‘What time is it?’, which would most often be said with a fall tone, then the fall begins and is most noticeable on time.

English Phonetics and Phonology

Roach describes five tones for English, the fall, the rise, the fall–rise, the rise–fall, and the level tone (Roach, 2009: 123–125). He gives broad functions/meanings for each:

fall‘The fall could be said to give an impression of “finality”.’
rise‘[T]his tone conveys an impression that something more is to follow.’
fall–rise – This tone is ‘…used a lot in English and has rather special functions’ one of which ‘… could be described as “limited agreement” or “response with reservations”.’
rise–fall‘This is used to convey strong feelings of approval, disapproval or surprise.’
level – A level tone ‘… almost always conveys (on single–syllable utterances) a feeling of saying something routine, uninteresting or boring.’

This would all be fine if it weren’t for what Roach puts in the very next paragraph:

A few meanings have been suggested for the five tones that have been introduced, but each tone may have many more such meanings. Moreover, it would be quite wrong to conclude that in the above examples only the tones given would be appropriate; it is, in fact, almost impossible to find a context where one could not substitute a different tone.

Roach, 2009: 125.

Well now that’s just great, Peter. It’s almost as if any tone could go anywhere, but that would be ridiculous. I mean if they are that flexible, why bother to have them at all.

I’m sorry. I really, really like English Phonetics and Phonology, but I need something a little clearer as to what tones do. Oh!, this looks good. English Intonation by Professor John Wells, an authority. Let’s get some help from him.

English Intonation

2 Tone: going up and going down. (Mm, this feels familiar. Let’s see.)
Falling and non-falling tones, Falls, Rises, Fall–rises, The definitive fall, The implicational fall-rise, Declarative questions, Uptalk, Yes, no and elliptical answers, Wh questions, Yes–no questions, Tag questions, Independent elliptical questions, Checking, Exclamations, Commands, Interjections and greetings, Leading and trailing tones, Topic and comment, Open and closed lists, Adverbials, Fall plus rise, Tone concord.

OMG! If I was looking for a quick pedagogical fix, this isn’t it. Though if I was an intonation junkie, then this is going to set me up for years to come. It surely has to be the most definitive work on intonation in England (or at least on the intonation of the RP speakers of England.) But I still need to know what to do in the classroom, so back to Roach.

Chapter 18 now. Page 150. The attitudinal function of intonation. This is going to be useful because we all know how badly some learners come across because of their intonation. If they could only hear themselves! Bored, bossy, disinterested, unenthusiastic – you name it, we’ve heard it. So now let’s see what we can do about it. Again, Roach to the rescue:

What advice, then, can we give to the foreign learner of English who wants to learn “correct intonation”? It is certainly true that a few generalisations can be made about the attitudinal functions of some components of intonation. We have looked at some basic examples earlier in this chapter. [It’s what I showed you above] Generalisations such as these are, however, very broad, and foreign learners do not find it easy to learn intonation through studying them. [Tell me!!] … Most of the generalisations one could make are probably true for a lot of other languages as well. In short, of the rules and generalisations that could be made about conveying attitudes through intonation, those which are not actually wrong are likely to be too trivial to be worth learning.

Roach, 2009: 150–1.

Peter, this is not looking good for teachers. Isn’t there anything else you can say to help us? Oh yes, here it is:

It should not be concluded that intonation is not important for conveying attitudes. What is being claimed here is that, although it is of great importance, the complexity of the total set of sequential and prosodic components of intonation and of paralinguistic features makes it a very difficult thing to teach or learn. … The attitudinal use of intonation is something that is best acquired through talking with and listening to English speakers, …

Roach, 2009: 151.

Goodness. That’s a turn-up for the books. And what’s more, what Roach is suggesting here, the idea of leaving some things to be acquired outside the classroom, that rings a bell. If I remember correctly, somebody else has said this about tones and their exact meaning. Now who was it? Ah yes, here it is:

Until very recently intonational materials tended to be particularly preoccupied with the attitudinal function of intonation, … For example, it was said that a rise–fall could mean that the speaker was impressed, being sarcastic or ironic, challenging, and so on. Nowadays, many intonation scholars accept that all this is very subjective, dependent on the individual speaker and on the specific context of the interaction, and thus impossible to generalize. Learners may well acquire these sorts of nuances through prolonged exposure to English, but we most probably cannot teach them in the classroom.

Jenkins, 2000: 151.

There it is, then, this business of inside/outside the classroom. The idea that some things are teachable (i.e. can be overtly explored in a classroom setting in ways that result in meaningful learning), and some things can only really be acquired by exposure to them during authentic use of the target language (i.e. are learnable). The attitudinal use of intonation falls into the latter category, and therefore, as with stress timing, however much work might appear on syllabuses or course books on using tones to communicate attitude, it is not actually a worthwhile use of valuable classroom time.

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Wow! Intonation is beginning to look like a no–go area. Or at least an area where what you get out just doesn’t warrant what you have to put in to make any meaningful impact. So do we dump it altogether? Is that what ‘intonation scholars’ are telling us? Well not quite. One thing is tone, with its falls and rises, and which would seem best left for learners to acquire once they’re out in the real world, and another is tonic, the element of rhythm that I rescued from the wreck I made last week of stress timing.

Tonic, it turns out, is too important to be left for acquisition to kick in. For Roach, the ‘location of the tonic syllable is of considerable linguistic importance‘ (2009; 153). He’s considering EFL/ESL contexts principally, of course, but Jenkins, thinking entirely about ELF/EIL settings, tells us that nuclear (tonic) stress is crucial for intelligibility. Although the majority of the pronunciation errors Jenkins recorded in her field work were segmental, ‘a substantial minority involved intonational errors and, of these, almost all related to misplaced nuclear stress, particularly contrastive stress’ (Jenkins, 2000: 153).

Turning her attention away from her research data and towards the classroom, Jenkins shows us a way forward:

As far as nuclear stress placement is concerned, the rules … are simple enough for learners to master in the classroom, ‘carry around’ with them, and automatise as procedural knowledge. Pedagogically, nuclear stress can be easily integrated receptively and productively into almost all classroom work: into the teaching of grammar and structure, lexical phrases, and the development of listening and speaking skills. Rules can be taught overtly, though with the caveat that it is not sufficient to tell students simply to stress the ‘most important’ word – they need help in working out how to identify this word.

Jenkins 2000: 155.

If you’re feeling a bit lost right now, I’m not surprised. I’m not sure I know where I am myself, but what I’m trying to say is:

  1. Intonation in English is a complex beast.
  2. Some aspects of the intonation of English are more amenable to work in the ELT classroom than others.
  3. The aspects of intonation that can be meaningfully dealt with in a classroom setting through overt exploration, explanation, and practice are said to be teachable.
  4. Tonic stress is teachable and is crucial to intelligibility both for EFL/ESL and for EIL/ELF.
  5. The attitudinal use of tone is not teachable, and is best left for learners to acquire once they are using their English for authentic communication outside the classroom.

Now are you with me? Hope so, but even if you’re not, as the vicar used to say as he came down from the pulpit when I was a child, ‘here endeth today’s lesson’.


Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wells, J. C. (2006). English Intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


2 thoughts on “Tonic, tone, teachable

  1. Thanks for this. Its very helpful. I hope you’re all doing Ok during this peculiar time!



  2. Hi Rosalind. I’m really glad you found this helpful. It’s a bit of a minefield, and it’s often treated in quite unhelpful ways even in current ELT coursebooks.
    We’re all doing fine here. But yes, the times are very peculiar.


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