Accent and tone of voice
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One of the main difficulties that faces us when we talk, and still more when
we read aloud, is that words that look alike may have to be sounded quite
differently owing to the fact that they are differently accentuated. One example
will show you what I mean:
say the word photo and listen to the noise you make to represent
the final o
now, say photography and listen to what happens when you come to
the second o in the word
You will find that, owing to different accentuation, the two noises are quite
What are accentuation and inflexion ?
Therefore it is obvious that learning, however accurately, the various
individual vowel, diphthong and consonant noises (whilst such learning is an
indispensable foundation) is insufficient to enable us to achieve good speech;
nor is it sufficient to learn the pronunciation of isolated words of one
There are also questions bound up with the problem of variations in tone and
accentuation. These variations may be classified under two headings,
accentuation and inflexion , and for the purpose of clarification
we may say that the former deals with single words and the latter with phrases
and whole sentences.
Before I go any further, however, I must give two warnings.
First, accentuation and inflexion are closely interlocked; the way in which a
single word is accentuated may depend upon whether it stands alone or is
incorporated in a sentence.
Secondly, however greatly you vary your accentuation or expression, you must
never alter the way in which by means of your vocal apparatus (your mouth shape,
tongue, lips, breath, vocal chords) you produce any given noise-the mechanics of
production must remain the same. In the widest sense of the word speech is
music, and just as when you play a given note on a piano, harp, violin or any
other instrument, you can do so in many different ways-loudly, softly,
tremulously, and so on-so you can make variations in the single sounds of
speech; but the note on your violin, for example, cannot be fundamentally
The two greatest difficulties in learning English
To the foreigner attempting to learn English the first great difficulty is
spelling, the second, hardly less puzzling, is accentuation.
The English language is the most heavily accentuated of all western
languages-and it is also the most irregularly accentuated. The French do, of
course, accentuate. Clarity of utterance demands a measure of accentuation from
everyone, no matter what language they speak; but they do so whenever possible
on the last syllable of a word and they make as little fuss about it as
English people, in contrast, accentuate very markedly, and it is extremely
difficult to formulate any rules as to where the stress is put. There are some
which are generally observed, but to all of them there are so many exceptions
that they can hardly be called rules at all. Once, when defending our language
to a French colleague, I remarked: "Rules are made to be broken," to which he
replied: "But with your accentuation you do not even bother to make rules."
However, there are a few rules of general application we can formulate, and
first among them is this:
with words of two or more syllables, it is usual to give at
least one of the syllables a special stress.
Say aloud the words magnet , rodent , horrid ,
deter , sorry ; in all of these, as in the majority of
two-syllable words, one syllable is more stressed than the other.
This, however, does not take us very far; which of the two syllables should
we automatically stress? With one exception these five words are stressed on the
first syllable, why then do we not say ' deee-ter '?
There is no answer real to the question, save that it is customary to say det
Having disposed rather unsatisfactorily of this question, we come up against
the fact that the rule, such as it is, does not always hold good. There are a
considerable number of two-syllable words which have an equal stress on both
syllables; fifteen , undone , and wayside are
examples. Such words are, however, relatively few in number.
How to stress three-syllable words
Our second rule will be this:
In words of more than three syllables there will usually be
two stressed syllables.
The reason for this is not hard to find; it is easier to say long words if we
make a pause of some sort in the course of them, and accentuation of a syllable
gives us a pause without breaking the continuity of the word.
When words are of greater length than three syllables, we usually need two
pauses. Think for a moment of the word ecclesiastical ; if we say that
without pausing anywhere, it is altogether " too much of a mouthful "; if we say
it with only one stress (on the syllable as ) we still have difficulty
in getting so far without pausing; but if we accentuate the second syllable
cle as well as the fourth syllable as , the word becomes an
altogether easier to get our mouths around.
From this second general rule derives another:
that where there is double accentuation of any word, the
stresses are not of equal value, one being nearly always more noticeable than
Too much accentuation is as bad a fault in English as too little; we use it
not only to make speaking easy but to give speech variety, and there is no
variety in the regular repetition of equal stresses. We speak with disfavour of
people being " heavy-footed " or " heavy-handed "; those who
give equal value to the two stresses in demonstration, for example, may be said
to be " heavy-voiced ."
Accentuation of prefixes
The exceptions to this rule are numerous, but they are based, for the most
part, on a general principle.
When a frequently used word is given a prefix, its meaning
being thus changed, and the prefix has a meaning of its own, the prefix is
usually given as much stress as the word to which it is joined.
Among the more common of these prefixes are anti , arch ,
un , half , over , pre , under ;
these help to make such words as antipathetic , archdeacon ,
undone , half-hearted , overbearing , prepay
, underwriting , and in each case the two stressed syllables in each
word are equally accentuated.
We have seen that words of more than three syllables generally have two
stressed syllables, unequally accentuated. The next problem is to discover which
of the two carries the greater stress, and the solution of the problem is that
almost invariably the second is the more heavily accentuated.
So far, so good, but our problem is still not properly solved. It is obvious
that except in freak words of phenomenal length, the first stress will have to
come either on the first or second syllable in order to avoid a vocal traffic
jam. We still wish to know on which of the two it should fall. Since there is no
principle of speech which we can apply as a touchstone to this problem, and
since the problem is one which from time to time vexes nearly all of us, Here's
two lists of words as examples of words over which, as regards the first
accentuated syllable, foreigners are very apt to go wrong (and there are many
English people almost equally prone to error).
The following words have the slighter stress on the first syllable:
Centralization Representation Mathematician
Modification Solemnization Disciplinarian
Ornamentation Circumvention Caricature
Peregrination Archaeological Penetrability
Qualification Temperamental Instrumental
Aristocratic Individuality Artificiality
Paraphernalia Heterogeneous Peritonitis
In contrast to the above list, the slighter stress is on the second syllable
of the words in the following list:
Administration Pronunciation Accessibility
Affiliation Ecclesiastical Familiarity
Anticipation Antagonistic Peculiarity
Assimilation Materialistic Superiority
Consideration Academician Encyclopaedia
Examination Bacteriology Tuberculosis
We have seen that words of two and three syllables usually have one of them
specially stressed, that in longer words there are usually two stresses, that in
this case the earlier of the stressed syllables is, in most words, the less
accentuated, and that this accentuation falls on the first or second syllable.
There remains the most important question of all: where, in all words of more
than one syllable, does the main stress fall?
I have already referred to this problem in dealing with single-stressed words
by telling you that no definite rule can be applied to solve it, and
unfortunately this is equally the case where longer words are concerned.
If I were to tell you that you throw the stress back as far as you can, you
could with perfect justice refer me to any long word ending in ation ,
as, for example, re-orientation , predestination , and thus
negate my argument; if, on the other hand, I were to maintain that you throw the
stress forward, you might well challenge me with photographer ; and
having used this word as a challenge to me you would yourself discover that
whereas the stress is on the second syllable, you accentuate the first syllable
in photograph , and also, that though it is a four-syllable word,
photographer only has one stress.
Again it is no more true to say that as a general rule you stress the first
syllable of a single-stressed word than it is to maintain that it is the second
or the third syllable that is accentuated; compare demise and demon
, calvary and aquatic , and you will see how hopeless it
is to formulate any rules.
Compilers of dictionaries have achieved a very large measure of
standardization, but if you look in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary
you will find no reasons given for the decisions they made and also, that in a
number of cases, alternative pronunciations are given as being equally correct.
That venerable institution the B.B.C. (more formally, the British
Broadcasting Corporation) (www.bbc.co.uk)
are endeavouring to give a lead on correct accentuation as well as
pronunciation, and you could not do better than follow their lead. But you will,
I'm afraid, have to follow it blindly, without being given the reasons why.
There is a list of recommended accentuations in the B.B.C.'s publication,
The stress in compound words
For a certain class of words, however, certain principles can be generally
observed when deciding where to put the main stress. These are what are known as
compound words, i.e., two words each capable of standing on its own, combined in
one, such as grasshopper , birthday , bookbinding ,
waterproof . The great majority of such words have only a
single-stressed syllable, and that syllable is the first one. Moreover, with
these words the exceptions can, for the most part, be classified as follows:
Where a great deal of the meaning of a compound word lies in the second
half, as in arm-chair , gas-stove , backyard ,
eyewitness , each part of the compound is accentuated, equal stress
being given to each.
Where the first part of the compound is an adjective, as in
white-lipped , good-looking , madcap , the same
principle of accentuation is adopted.
Outside these two classifications are various other compounds also having a
double stress, the most common of which are probably the compounds of here
, there and where (except hereafter and
thereafter , which are single-stressed), and hence .
Finally, before leaving the subject of the accentuation of words, I will just
repeat my previous warning that accentuation may be modified by the position of
a word in a sentence.
This modification particularly takes place in two-syllable words that
normally are double-stressed.
If, in answer to the question: "How many rabbits do you keep?" you reply:
"Fifteen," each of the two syllables is equally accentuated, but if you say: "He
went away fifteen years ago," there is appreciably more stress on the second
than on the first syllable. It is rare in common speech to find two consecutive
syllables in a single word equally accentuated if that word occurs in the middle
of a sentence, unless the word is a compound one.
We may know how the single sounds that make up a word ought to be pronounced;
we may know how that word should be accentuated, and we may have-indeed, we all
do have-grammatical knowledge sufficient to enable us to string words together
into a meaningful sentence; but still we may not convey to our listeners what we
intend to convey if we do not use the right tonal inflexions.
Effect of accentuation on meaning
The exact shade of meaning in any sentence depends to a considerable extent
on the rise and fall in our tone of voice and in the consequent emphasis given
to particular words.
Wrong emphasis may destroy the intended meaning of a sentence almost as
effectively as the use of a wrong word.
Equally, if you drop the pitch of your voice instead of raising it, or raise
it when you should drop it, you may turn a question into a statement and vice
In English speech it is possible to ask a question in the form of a statement
and in such cases it is extremely important to use an inflexion which makes your
listener certain that a question is intended. If we say: "It's been a fine day,"
and do not raise the pitch of our voice on the last word, we are understood to
be making a statement; but if we do raise our pitch on the last word, the
sentence becomes a question.
Try saying it in both ways and you will see what I mean. Similarly, the only
way in which we can indicate in speech that a statement has been finished, that
there are no qualifications or additions to come, is by a definite lowering of
our voice's pitch.
Need to make our meaning clear
Our first consideration in speaking sentences should be to make our meaning
clear, and in ensuring, the way in which our voice rises and falls in tone plays
an important part.
It plays a dominant part in making clear the emotion that lies behind or
inspires our meaning; we have no really adequate method of conveying in speech
what we feel other than that of varying the expression in our voices. It is
quite possible to say: "I hate you," all on the same note and without emphasis,
but if you do so you will entirely fail to convey any sense of hatred; but if
you raise your voice on hate your feelings will be at once conveyed to
Subtler shades of emotion can also be indicated by change of tonal emphasis.
You can say: "I am so happy," raising the pitch of your voice on so and keeping
it raised until the second syllable of happy , and thereby indicating
an abundance of happiness, or you can keep your voice on one note until you
reach the word happy , and raise the first syllable several tones, in
which case you will indicate a feeling of wonder at your own happiness. There
are obviously many other possibilities of accentuation of this phrase. Each
variant conveys a subtle and individual emotional meaning.
This illustration shows the importance of tonal inflexion. In this problem,
the problem of when to raise your voice and when to let it fall, both to express
meaning and feeling, it is possible to lay down certain generally accepted
These refer to ordinary conversational speech. For politicians or actors
special tricks are necessary, because the former often seeks to persuade his
audience against their wills, and the latter deals with a world of illusion.
Advice to actors and politicians is, however, outside the scope of this book.
The first rule to remember is:
to indicate any emotion you must not only change the pitch
of your voice, but you must also change it during the accented syllable of the
The change may be either a falling or a rising cadence. When the emotion is
expressed in the course of a statement the falling cadence is normally used;
when you say: "She was wearing a really lovely dress," you express admiration,
and your voice begins to fall from a high pitch on the first syllable of
lovely ; but remember that in order to get the full effect of the falling
cadence you must first have raised your voice; otherwise emphasis is lost.
If you begin the first syllable of lovely on the same note as you
have used for "she was wearing a," the falling cadence you then use will be
valueless for emotional purposes.
If you wish to express emotion in the course of a question you may need to
use a rising cadence. Take the following simple sentence: "Did you do that
dreadful thing?" If what you want to express is an emotion of pained surprise
that the thing was done by "you," then you express it by a rising cadence on
you , which can only be made effective if you is pitched lower
than the previous word did .
The fact that in the above example the special emotion occurs early in the
sentence and is expressed by a rising cadence, leads us, indirectly, to a second
general rule, which deals with the problem of questions in speech.
Sentences embodying a question can be divided into two
classes, those in which an interrogative word is used, and those in which the
sentence begins with some part of an auxiliary verb ("to be" or "to
In the former, the question, apart from any special emphasis required, is
indicated by starting with your voice low pitched and raising the pitch
gradually; in the latter, by reversing the process. If you say: "Were you at
home last night?" you should start on a low note and rise through the sentence
to the last syllable; if you say: "Where did you go last night?" you should
reverse the process.
Now, a falling cadence will have little effect if your voice is pitched low
before you attempt the fall; therefore, in order to achieve the startling effect
which is your object when you alter the pitch of your voice, you must, in the
sentence: "Did you do that dreadful thing?" break the rule I have just given you
and start the sentence on a high pitch; furthermore you must use the rising
cadence, for the rest of the sentence rises to the final syllable, and if you
used a falling cadence you would get a startling effect not only on the word you
wish to emphasize but on the succeeding word as well.
Our problem in this sentence is, in fact, a complicated one; but by contrast,
if we want to emphasize the you in: "Where have you been?" it is
simple. Since the sentence starts with an interrogative it will naturally be
said on a falling cadence; we have only to make the fall more abrupt on the word
How to express a qualifying phrase
Emphasis-which usually denotes emotion-is expressed by a sudden change in the
pitch of our voice, that is to say, is expressed by a rising or a falling
cadence. A query is expressed by a gradual rise or fall according to whether it
is or is not introduced by an interrogative word. But when we are dealing with a
qualifying phrase or an idea expressed in parenthesis, we employ neither of
A qualifying phrase is illustrated by the following sentence: "This
remarkable man, who never failed to perform what he had promised, was honoured
by his whole country," and a parenthesis occurs in the italicized portion of the
following: "The whole problem, so the Prime Minister informed the House of
Commons , was under earnest consideration."
In these two cases the general rule is:
you should, throughout the qualifying phrase or
parenthesis, keep your voice as much as possible at the same pitch, and that
in any case you should not drop your voice on the last syllable.
When you should drop your voice
This brings us to a final, and very important rule. I have left it to the
last since it is actually observed automatically by almost every one and so
needs less emphasis than the others.
This rule is:
in the course of the last syllable of any word completing a
statement or a question, you should always drop your voice.
If you wish to inform someone of your political convictions by making the
simple statement: "I am a Conservative," you should drop your voice on the final
syllable of Conservative . If you do not do so, your companion will
expect you to qualify the statement. And conversely, if you do drop your voice
on this syllable he will be unprepared for a subsequent qualification such as:
"Although I do not approve of Mrs. Thatcher."
One of the few things that we are taught at school about the spoken word is
that you should not drop your voice at the end of a sentence. To some extent
this is untrue. When you have finished what, for the moment, you want to say, or
when you have come to what, in print, would be represented by a full stop, you
should always drop your voice.
The only truth in this statement lies in the fact that you should never do so
to such an extent that you become inaudible. There is real danger that, through
laziness, you may develop the disease of inaudibility, and if one word is
inaudible, a whole sentence may become meaningless; but, provided you are of
this danger, you will find that there is no more useful signpost in the whole of
our spoken language than the dropping of our voice at the right moments.
It could be argued that these rules of vocal inflexion may, if applied too
rigidly, defeat the object. I need to warn you that, however correctly you
employ the rising or falling cadence and the other prescribed variations in tone
of voice, you are likely to rob your speech of meaning if you consciously strive
to follow these rules every time you open your mouth.
It cannot be stressed often enough that the main purpose of speech is to
convey meaning. It may be that yours can be meaningful even though you break all
the rules I have just given you; all I would say is, that for most of us, these
rules-if followed without conscious effort-make the expression of the ideas we
want to convey easier than it would otherwise be.
And practice makes perfect.
There are also general warnings and pieces of advice which, I believe, every
one would do well to incorporate into their speech lives.
• Do not over-emphasize single words. This is a necessary warning because I
have so far stressed the need for emphasis in speech. In speech, as in
everything else, you can have too much of a good thing. Keep your reserves of
vocal emphasis for occasions on which you really feel emotion; if you are
continually over-emphasizing words your listeners will soon cease to believe
that any emphasis you use has any special significance.
• Beware of double emphasis. If you put a lot of stress on one word in a
sentence that word will stand out, as a high peak stands out in the middle of a
plain; but if two words in close juxtaposition are each given special emphasis
the prominence of each will be adversely affected by the other.
• Do not under any circumstances let your voice stay for a long time at the
same pitch. One of the worst faults in speech is monotony. I know that I have
told you not to vary the voice's pitch when speaking a qualifying phrase, but
such phrases, and ideas in parenthesis, should never be long ones. Let your
voice rise and fall.
• Do not adopt a sing-song intonation. Your voice should not keep on rising
and failing to and from the same note. If it does, you will only achieve an
effect of monotony similar to that which occurs when you do not vary the pitch
• Do not be afraid of taking a new breath. It is better to break a sentence,
or even a word if necessary, than to arrive breathless at the end of either.
Be natural in your speech
One final piece of advice:
be natural in your speech .
My object throughout this mini ebook has been to give you first, some idea of
the main sounds of our language and of how they should be made, so that you can
study them and consider whether they are, in fact, the sounds you are accustomed
to make; and secondly, to indicate the main principles of accentuation and vocal
inflexion, so that you can express your meaning and emotions clearly.
If, however, every time you speak, you are wondering: "Am I making the noises
which I have been told to make, and varying my voice in the correct manner,"
then your speech will become stilted and affected; and if there is one thing
about 'Pronunciation' it is that affected speech is bad speech.
As with all things in life, practice makes perfect. Prepare your speech,
record yourself if you can and play it back (in private would be a good idea at
first). Once you are more confident you can practice in front of others, if you
Speaking confidently, either in a one-on-one setting or to a auditorium full
of people, entails knowing your material, preparing any props (such as
PowerPoint or multimedia presentations), rehearsing, and being aware of your
timing. And you need to know how to speak so as to not either send your audience
to sleep or have them laughing behind your back.
I trust that the rules I have outlined are of help.
About the Author
Lee Hopkins the author of over 130 articles on business communication, and is
recognised world-wide as one of Australia's leading experts in online business
communication, including Social Media or Web2.0 as it's also known.
To connect with him, please call him on +61 8121 4444 any hour of the day or
night; if he's asleep you can leave a voice message!
Visit his site at www.LeeHopkins.com
to find many more articles on business communication. He also blogs at
www.LeeHopkins.net. Whilst there, why
not pick up a complimentary copy of his 'Social Media White Paper', which
explains all about this latest seismic change to the business communication
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-11-23 12:42:49 in Personal Articles