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Phonetics Laboratory
Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics

Testing the Foundations of Intonation

Although the pitch of the human voice is continuously variable, phonologists commonly represent intonation (pitch variation) as a sequence of discrete symbols. A frequent claim is that English involves a small set of categorically different intonation patterns; listeners interpret and make linguistic sense of continuous pitch changes via those patterns. Evidence for discrete symbols in intonation is based on the linguist's conscious classification of contours. However, there is uncertainty as to the number and the boundaries of such categories.Even their psychological reality is in doubt.

We are working and provide a firm empirical basis for linguistic research on intonation and prosody in speech, using behavioural experiments that do not require conscious judgements about linguistic entities. We expect to learn about how we perceive intonation, and what the basic symbols of English Intonation correspond to. Eventually, we hope to compare different languages, and study how intonation and prosody are transmitted from one generation to the next.  This ties in with work on Intonational Mimicry, with work on the perception and production of prominence, and with mathematical models of intonation.

Greg Kochanski


Intonation Variation in English

In two projects completed some years back, Esther Grabe, John Coleman, Greg Kochanski and co-workers conducted a large corpus-based study of variation in intonation in nine dialects of English spoken in the British Isles (locations in England, Wales and Ireland, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). A number of different speech styles are exemplified, from read sentences to unscripted conversation.

The corpus was collected by Esther Grabe and co-workers from the University of Cambridge in the first of the two projects (IViE), and analysed by the Oxford team in the second project, Oxigen.

All of the data is available for download from the IViE website, and although our interest was in intonation, the corpus has been used by very many researchers and English language teachers from all around the world interested in a variety of aspects of contemporary English speech.

John Coleman