The pitch of a language is its melody – the rising and falling of the tones to create additional meanings. Of course, everyone has their own pitch of voice, so we are concerned with relative pitch – the amount that the pitch rises and falls relative to itself. The same sentence used with varying pitch can completely change the implied meaning of that sentence:
In each of these cases, the emphasis of the sentence is changed. There’s also an implied meaning (for example: clarification, “are you deaf?”, “are you stupid?”, showing annoyance, etc) which listeners may interpret in a variety of ways. Spanish uses this as well.
In English, we actually have more levels of pitch than Spanish. Linguists typically divide pitch into levels. English has four levels (from level one being the lowest, to level four, the highest), whereas Spanish has three levels. These are relative pitches, as everybody’s basic pitch level will be different. Level two is known as the “mid” pitch, with level three being slightly higher, and level one slightly lower.
People vary between these levels during a phrase, usually due to a certain accepted convention. We don’t tend to notice these unless someone gets it wrong. One typical intonation pattern in English is with “informational” questions. Usually, when someone asks “where are you going?” in a natural setting, the pitch pattern sounds like this:
However, if someone were to say this phrase with a falling tone, it wouldn’t sound like a question:
If we apply the English intonation to Spanish information questions, it will sound wrong to them. Spanish speakers use a falling intonation, or a rise and then a fall for added emphasis:
¿Dónde está mi dinero?
Here’s how that would sound if we applied our English intonation:
You would probably be understood if you used intonation like this (and of course, we’re exaggerating in the recording), but you would sound a little weird to Spanish ears. Pitch tends to be an extra-linguistic cue that we naturally pick up, but when English and Spanish pitch are markedly different it’s useful to know what to look out for.
In the next chapter, we’re going to look at a few pitch patterns in Spanish.