Spanish pitch patterns
Spanish has plenty of pitch patterns which speakers will use depending on the type of phrase. A question will have a different pitch pattern to a statement, and different types of questions can also vary in pitch. Of course, speakers will often go “off-piste” without realising it and use different pitch patterns entirely – that’s why it’s difficult to learn these!
We won’t go into great detail on all of these, because it isn’t totally necessary. Instead, we want to equip you with a general awareness of pitch, so that you can notice native speakers’ uses of pitch in different ways for yourself. We’ll also show you a few phrase types where typical English pitch is different from typical Spanish pitch.
Simple declarative sentences
These are the amongst the most basic sentence types, consisting of a subject and object (for example, “I like ice cream”). In English, our pitch rises through the phrase, before falling at the end:
In Spanish, the pitch stays flat, falling slightly at the end:
Listen to the pitch of these sentences and repeat, following the pitch closely.
“Colombia es un país hermoso”
If the speaker wants to add emphasis, he or she may rise in pitch slightly before the drop in pitch at the end of the statement:
Tag questions consist of a statement, followed by a clarifying question (for example: “It’s a good idea, isn’t it?”). Spanish usually uses the word “no” or “cierto” (although “cierto” is more typical in Latin American Spanish, less so in Spain) for the “tag” part at the end of the statement:
“Es un día bonito, ¿cierto?”
Much like in English, Spanish uses a pronounced rising intonation in the tag question (ie, the last word):
For questions where the only answers are yes or no, Spanish also uses a rising inflection on the last syllable of the phrase:
For information questions (ie, those questions which require more than a yes/no answer), Spanish speakers often use a falling pitch – the opposite to our English intonation:
When adding emphasis to a question, speakers may rise in pitch before the drop at the end of the question:
When presenting a choice, Spanish speakers will also drop their pitch towards the end of the sentence:
Commands, using the imperative tense, have quite an unusual pitch pattern. They actually start at a 3 – the highest pitch – before dropping down through the phrase to 1:
Generally, Spanish reserves its changes of pitch for the end of the sentence (except for the last example!). Therefore, when wishing to emphasise a certain point, a Spanish speaker would typically do so by changing the order of the words so that the emphatic word occurs at the end. Listen to these two English statements, both emphasising different words:
Notice that the word order does not change, but the word is emphasised wherever it sits within the phrase. A Spanish speaker, on the other hand, may be tempted to express the same emphasis in the following ways:
Tengo que comer algo
Tengo que comer algo yo
Algo tengo que comer
Notice that in each case, the emphasised word falls at the end of the phrase – even if this means rearranging or adding new words to the phrase.
As Spanish is more flexible in its word order than English, Spanish speakers will often switch around words to create emphasis, as we’ve just seen.
It’s impossible to cover all of the different stress patterns – and we don’t really want to. These can vary without limit between accents, situations, and individual speakers. Instead, our aim is to get you to listen and to notice differences in pitch, and realise that your own native language pitch may not be the same in Spanish.
Over time, you’ll get exposure to different pitch patterns, and now you know what to listen out for you’ll be able to imitate these accurately yourself.