An introduction to Spanish intonation

Spanish intonation is a way for speakers to add additional meaning to what they say – to emphasise points, and show emotion (such as annoyance, happiness, and anger). English speakers often use intonation to show sarcasm, for example. Intonation is not so much about what we say, but how we say it! Interestingly, it’s also one of the areas that children first pick up on – they are able to distinguish between angry sounds and happy sounds, for example, before they are able to form an understanding of complex sentences.

Spanish intonation is an additional “layer” to the language beyond the words, grammar, and syntax that also form Spanish. It can’t really be replicated in written language, and is therefore referred to as “extra-linguistic”, or “prosody” (or if you want to be really fancy, “suprasegmentals”). It’s formed of a mixture of features:

Stress is about where the emphasis is placed, both within words, and within phrases.

Rhythm describes the “beat” of Spanish, which is totally different to English.

Pitch is the melody of the language. Spanish can use pitch to convey the speaker’s attitude – whether that’s sarcasm, emphasis of particular words, as well as plenty of ordinary patterns in pitch within a sentence – yes/no questions, commands, greetings, and many other types of phrases all have typical pitch patterns. Spanish is not a tonal language, where variations in tone are used to change the meanings of words (languages such as Mandarin are tonal languages).

Is Spanish intonation important?

What would we sound like if we didn’t bother with intonation? Most likely, we would sound like emotionless robots! We can speak the language flawlessly and fluency, but if we miss these extra-linguistic cues we are missing an entire additional layer of meaning. At best, we would sound very odd, at worst, we could offend and be completely mis-interpreted. We think this is one of the most important areas of Spanish pronunciation, and knowing the key differences between English and Spanish intonation is vital for forming a decent Spanish accent.

Throughout the next few chapters, we’re going to take a look at all of these elements, look at how they differ from English, and provide exercises so you can observe and practise what we’re talking about.