Take the 2-minute tour ×
Linguistics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional linguists and others with an interest in linguistic research and theory. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There is a rule used almost subconsciously by almost all English speakers (and I'm sure it applies to many other languages too) which is that yes/no questions are asked ending with a rising tone, and others are ended with a falling tone. Why is this and how did the phenomenon develop?

There is one exception to this rule that I've found - if you ask a yes/no question with a falling tone, it is still understood as a question, but that you're asking it in a very unenthusiastic or grudging way. Again, is there any obvious reason for this or did it just kind of randomly develop?

share|improve this question
Has it been shown somewhere that this is actually the case? For example, I think in Italian we use the tone regardless: some make it falling, some rising, and sometimes falling/rising, etc... Basically what I'm curious about: did you realize this yourself or read/heard about it somewhere? –  Alenanno Dec 20 '12 at 13:57
I heard about it on an English radio programme (which made me think about it), and certainly in my experience it always applies in English and French. –  Jez Dec 20 '12 at 14:04
Ah I see, is the radio programme available on their site? (By the way, I didn't downvote.) –  Alenanno Dec 20 '12 at 14:10
I'd like to see a reference too, because I don't believe this is true. –  Cerberus Dec 20 '12 at 15:20
I know that Fry's English Delight covered this topic briefly on their "Intonation" episode. I rather enjoy the show but be warned that it is definitely made from a general audience. –  acattle Dec 21 '12 at 0:54

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

As for why intonation might be used to mark polar questions rather than content questions, my guess is that polar questions are the most frequent question type, so from a functional perspective, such a useful cue as F0 gets one more profit if it is used for the more common question type. This is just a hunch.

For the prevalence of rising pitch contour used to mark polar questions, see the references below. Rialland's papers draw attention to a common phenomenon in African languages where polar questions are marked with a falling pitch contour.

Ohala, John J. 1984. “An ethological perspective on common cross-language utilization of F0 of voice.” Phonetica 41: 1-16.

Rialland, Annie. 2007. Question prosody: an African perspective. In Gussenhoven, Carlos, and Tomas Riad (eds.), Tunes and Tones, Volume 1: Typological Studies in Word and Sentence Prosody. Berlin: Mouton deGruyter, pp. 35-62.

Rialland, Annie. 2009. The African lax question prosody: Its realisation and geographical distribution. Lingua 119.6: 928-949.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.