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?

  • 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 14:04
  • Ah I see, is the radio programme available on their site? (By the way, I didn't downvote.)
    – Alenanno
    Dec 20, 2012 at 14:10
  • 2
    I'd like to see a reference too, because I don't believe this is true.
    – Cerberus
    Dec 20, 2012 at 15:20
  • 1
    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, 2012 at 0:54

4 Answers 4


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.


This rule is almost universal across English speaking countries although the change in tone can be missed if you're not use to the rule, it' can be rather subtle. I don't think most people even realize they do this because it's so commonly used in daily speech. This same rule applies in yes or no questions in French.


It's because yes-no questions are asked by listing first a positive alternative, then the negative alternative. In giving a list, each item before the last one gets a rising intonation, so the positive alternative gets a pitch rise: "Do you want to eat, or do you not want to?" When the negative alternative is suppressed, we're left with just the first list item that still has the rise in pitch at the end.


Polar questions are usually marked by fronting an auxiliary, as in: 'Did it fall?' or 'Was it big?'. Content questions are marked by query pronouns, also usually fronted, as in: 'What did he eat?'. Since the fronting is not obligatory, the question may instead be marked by pitch inflection, as in: 'It FELL?' or 'He ate WHAT?'. Even with fronting, the pitch cue is often retained.

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