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Distinctive (Phonological) function

to prove that intonation is capable of differentiating the meaning we must make opposition of 2 phrases of identical syntactic structure and lexical composition, in which the difference in meaning is marked by intonation only.

What kinds of meaning can be differentiated:

1) the syntactic (communicative) types of sentences:

Isn’t it wonderful? (=a question)

Isn’t it wonderful! (=an interjection)

Will you stop talking (=a command)

Will you stop talking (=a request)

Only the change of nuclear tone can change the communicative type of a sentence.

It’s a lovely day. (=a statement)

It’s a lovely day (=an interjection)

It’s a lovely day? (=a question)

2) intonation is capable of distinguishing attitudinal meanings:

She’s passed the exam. (=reserved, uninterested)

She’s passed the exam. (lively interested)

She’s passed the exam. (impressed)

In this case not only the nuclear tone can differentiate the meaning, but the head also, as well as the pre-head. They all convey attitudinal meaning.

The fool. (=a fact)

The fool. (=very emotionally)

3) intonation can differentiate the meaning of the whole phrase (the actual meaning):

- Have you read this book?

- not once. (= ни разу)

- not once. (= ни один раз, много раз)

I don’t want you to read anything. (= because of your eyes)

I don’t want you to read anything. (= всякую ерунду)

The change of meaning can also be the result of the shift of centre stress (different placement of nuclear tone).

I have plans to leave (= у меня есть планы уехать)

I have plans to leave (= у меня есть документы, которые нужно оставить)

Phrasing can have (put) subdivision into intonation groups:

This I my teacher, Dc. Smith. (= познакомьтесь)

This is my teacher Dc. Smith. (=его зовут доктор Смит).

But still mainly it’s the nuclear tone which can differentiate the meaning of the phrase. This function is sometimes called semantic.


By organizing function we mean the following:

1) the role of intonation in the process of integration and delimitation

2) -||- in structuring the information content of the text

All these processes take place simultaneously.

By delimitation we mean that intonation can divide the text into smaller units:

- phonopasseges;

- phrases;

- intonation groups.

Integration consists in organizing smaller units into bigger ones:

intonation groups -> into phrases -> into phonopasseges -> text.


The role of intonation in conveying the information ‘content of the text.

Intonation can highlight the most important information, on the other hand it shows which information is known to the listener.

Peter went(given information, the theme) to Paris (= new information, the rhyme)

In most cases (80%) in English the last notional word has the nuclear tone. We call this position unmarked (=обычная), sometimes – end-focus.

Did Peter go to Paris?

No, Mark went to Paris. (it’s marked position of the tone).

Any part of speech can carry new information and take the focus position.

The book is not on the table, it’s in the table.

Intonation is also instrumental in conveying shades of meaning. It may be in balance with syntactic structure and lexical composition of an utterance, but it may also neutralize or even contradict them

Isn’t it ridiculous? (a question pronounced as a statement).

How very nice. (=negative).

This ability of intonation is often used to convey irony.


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