Boundary tone

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The term boundary tone refers to a rise or fall in pitch that occurs in speech at the end of a sentence or other utterance, or, if a sentence is divided into two or more intonational phrases, at the end of each intonational phrase. It can also refer to a low or high intonational tone at the beginning of an utterance or intonational phrase.

The term was first introduced in a PhD thesis on English intonation by Mark Liberman in 1975 but without being developed further.[1] It was taken up again in 1980 in another PhD thesis on English intonation by Janet Pierrehumbert.[2] In Pierrehumbert's model, which later developed into the ToBI system of intonational transcription, every intonational phrase is marked as ending in a boundary tone, written either H% when the speaker's voice rises up or remains high, or L% when it falls or remains low.

In modern intonational studies the term 'boundary tone' replaces the notion of 'terminal junctures' (falling #, rising //, and level /) used in earlier American studies of intonation.[3]

Examples of boundary tones[edit]

Pierrehumbert gives the example of the sentence This is my sister Mary. This can be pronounced in two ways, either as a single intonational phrase with a single high pitch on the first syllable of Mary (L L L L L H L), or as two intonational phrases with a high pitch both on sister and on Mary (L L L H L H L). If it is pronounced the second way, the words sister and Mary both have a falling intonation, and each one is transcribed by Pierrehumbert as H* L L%.[4] Here the asterisk (*) indicates a pitch accent, the hyphen () indicates a phrase accent, which fills the interval between the last pitch accent and the final boundary tone, and the percent symbol (%) indicates the boundary tone itself.[5]

Pitch track illustrating the H% boundary tone, from Pierrehumbert (1980), p. 266.

In another example, in response to the question, "What about Anna? Who did she come with?", a speaker may reply Anna came with Manny. Again there are two possible pronunciations: the speaker can either say this as a single intonational phrase with a single high pitch on Manny (L L L L H L), or as two intonational phrases with one high pitch on the first syllable of Anna and another on the first syllable of Manny (H L L L H L). If the sentence is pronounced in the second way, because the word Anna is the topic of the sentence and does not give new information, it will have a slight rise in pitch on the second syllable (see the illustration). In this case it is transcribed by Pierrehumbert as H* L H%.[6]

A boundary tone can also begin a sentence or intonational phrase. For example, the phrase Another orange would usually be pronounced with a low pitch on the first syllable. However, it can sometimes be pronounced with a high pitch on the vowel A-. Pierrehumbert marks this high pitch also with H%.[7] (A low boundary tone at the beginning of an utterance is usually not marked by Pierrehumbert.)

Boundary tones in other languages[edit]

Because of its simplicity compared with previous attempts at transcribing English intonation, Pierrehumbert's model has been influential[8] and has been successfully adapted to several other languages, for example Persian,[9] German,[10] and Dutch.[11] Some analyses use a larger number of boundary tones than L% and H%; for example for Dutch, Gussenhoven uses L%, H%, and % (no boundary tone) at the end of an utterance, and %L, %H, and %HL at the beginning;[11] while for Italian Frota and Prieto posit six boundary tones, written L%, H%, LH%, HL%, L!H%, and H!H% (where !H represents a downstepped high tone, i.e. one slightly lower in pitch than the previous one).[12]

Internal boundary tones[edit]

A rising boundary tone can often be heard internally in a sentence in some languages, for example, to mark a topic,[13] to mark off items in a list, or following the subordinate clause in a sentence such as "If you like it, please buy it".[14] (See further: Chichewa tones#Boundary tones.)

Question boundary tones[edit]

Boundary tones are also used to mark questions in many languages. For example, in Chichewa, a yes-no question may be indicated either by a rising tone on the final syllable, or by a high-low falling tone (e.g. mwalandirâ? "have you received it?").[15] In Luganda, a related language spoken in Uganda, on the contrary, a yes-no question is indicated by a low tone on the final syllable (e.g. ssóméró 'it is a school' vs. ssóméro 'is it a school?').[16] (See Chichewa tones and Luganda tones.)

A corpus-based study of yes-no questions in American English found that the great majority of them (approximately 90%) ended in a high boundary tone (H%), most frequently (80%) using a "low-rise" final contour transcribed L*H-H%. The next most common contour is H*H-H%, which is described as "high-rise". A typical low-rise question transcribed in the study is And do you still work for a veterinarian?, with the syllable ve- marked as L* followed by a smooth rise to a high pitch at the end.[17] Less commonly a yes-no question will end in a "high-fall", for example, Is it treatable?, in which the word treatable is marked H*L-L%.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Liberman (1975), p. 286.
  2. ^ Pierrehumbert (1980), p. 26.
  3. ^ Cruttenden (1986), pp. 45f.
  4. ^ Pierrehumbert (1980), p. 266.
  5. ^ Port, R. ToBI Intonation Transcription Summary.
  6. ^ Pierrehumbert (1980), pp. 47, 266, 315.
  7. ^ Pierrehumbert (1980), p. 258.
  8. ^ Cruttenden (1986), p. 67f.
  9. ^ Sadat-Tehrani (2007).
  10. ^ Grice et al (2005)
  11. ^ a b Gussenhoven (2010).
  12. ^ Frota & Prieto (2015), p. 412.
  13. ^ Myers (1996), p. 34.
  14. ^ Kanerva, Jonni M. (1990). Focus and Phrasing in Chichewa Phonology. New York, Garland, p. 147.
  15. ^ Myers (1996), p. 35; Hullquist, C.G. (1988), Simply Chichewa, p. 145.
  16. ^ Kamoga, F.K. & Stevick, E.W. (1968), Luganda Basic Course, p. 242.
  17. ^ Hedberg et al (2014), p. 10.
  18. ^ Hedberg et al, p. 13.