inflection for non-idiots

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

every language has patterns of vocal tone. some (mandarin, cantonese) are explicit. others (korean, french) are minimalist. english has patterns and they’re unwritten. but they’re very simple and can be almost-completely summarized by the two-word lyric from the 70s — get down. sentences in english are pitch-neutral with falling inflection at the ends. this is the basic rule and if you learned modern english in school you’ll already know that.

the problem is the exception. and there’s only one. but someone probably told you there are several and they’ve led you down a path that will make you sound either stupid or non-native — possibly both.

there are two ways to make a question in english — actually, there are two ways to make a question in almost any language but we’re talking specifically about english here. you can ask a question or you can imply it. let’s look at a few examples of each.

  • are you happy?
  • do you like ice cream?
  • what time is your date?
  • how was the trip?
  • are we there yet?

these are grammatical questions, not because they end in question-marks but because they have what we call inverted-structure. this is done either using a question word (who, what, when, where, why, how) instead of a standard subject or by putting the first verb before the subject (“are we” instead of “we are”, “are you” instead of “you are”). when you make questions using these methods, it is obviously a question because of the grammar. there is no ambiguity whether you’re asking or making a statement. the inflection shouldn’t change. i’ll say that again so it’s not confusing in the least. these sentences should be spoken exactly as all other standard english sentences. before we go on to the alternative, let’s look a little at what that pattern looks like.

i’ve already said it’s pitch-neutral with falling inflection but what does that really mean? english is an inflected language — it uses variation in pitch to convey emotion and meaning. but it is an extremely-weakly-inflected language. there is very little variation in common english speech. this was not always the case. in the era of shakespeare, there was an incredible amount of variation in pitch as people spoke. even as recently as the nineteenth century, people spoke with vastly-variable tones in their speech. there are still places in the world where this outdated tradition has been retained. it now sounds either decidedly foreign (parts of india where this is still the norm and often mocked in western popular media) or incomprehensibly badly-educated and childish (england, though the language spoken there by the average person is so divorced from modern english, it’s about as far from modern as their school system, healthcare and racism). don’t do that. if you live in one of those places, you might need to do it to fit in. elsewhere, you’ll be laughed at, either openly or in secret.

most english is spoken with little variation in tone. whatever pitch you use for the first syllable of your sentence should be mirrored in the rest except the last 1-3 syllables, where the pitch will drop. how much it drops is up to you and you can listen to those around you for a good idea but it’s usually somewhat subtle, a little drop rather than the depressive tonal sinkhole of eeyore (from winnie the pooh!). it varies in length but it’s usually just one syllable. it can be more if the sentence is very long or the last syllable or two are so weak (accent-weak, not content-weak) they can’t sustain tonal change. if you just drop the pitch a little on the last syllable, though, nobody will find it unusual even if you never vary the pattern. it’s perfectly natural in its sound.

what’s the other option for questions? implication. the same five questions (approximately) look like this.

  • you’re happy?
  • you like ice cream?
  • your date’s at 8?
  • the trip was good?
  • we’re there?

these are different from the statement versions.

  • you’re happy.
  • you like ice cream.
  • your date’s at 8.
  • the trip was good.
  • we’re there.

you’ll immediately notice the only change is the question-mark or period at the end of each. it will probably be obvious this change isn’t audible when the language is spoken. how do you tell the difference? this is where the often-discussed rising question inflection appears. the difference between “you’re happy?” as a question and “you’re happy.” as a statement is that instead of a small drop in pitch on the last syllable (statement), there is a small (yes, small, unless you want to sound like you’ve been sniffing helium) tonal shift up on the last syllable. only the last syllable. and it’s an incredibly-small change in pitch. i can’t emphasize how much this change should be small to avoid sounding silly.

there is one exception to this rule. when you’re speaking to a very young child, it might be customary to use vastly-divergent inflection. if you’re speaking to anyone but a pre-toddler, however, this will sound exactly like you’re — well, like you’re speaking to an infant and nobody wants to be treated that way. this is the underlying implication in english — either you’re talking to a baby or you’re too stupid to have adult conversation. i don’t think either is a result you want to cultivate.

this is an extremely simple thing to remember and it really will make a huge difference when you speak english. you will be perceived as a more native-like speaker and far more educated and intelligent if you adopt this basic pattern. i hope that’s helpful! happy speaking.

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