Chapter 1 American Intonation
The American Speech Music
What to Do with Your Mouth to Sound American
One of the main differences between the way an American talks and the way the rest of the world
talks is that we don't really move our lips. (So, when an American says, "Read my lips!" what does
he really mean?) We create most of our sounds in the throat, using our tongue very actively. If you
hold your fingers over your lips or clench your jaws when you practice speaking American English,
you will find yourself much closer to native-sounding speech than if you try to pronounce every ...
single ... sound ... very ... carefully.
If you can relate American English to music, remember that the indigenous music is jazz. Listen to
their speech music, and you will hear that Americans have a melodic, jazzy way of producing
sounds. Imagine the sound of a cello when you say, Beddy bada bida beader budder (Betty bought a
bit of better butter) and you'll be close to the native way of saying it.
Because most Americans came from somewhere else, American English reflects the accent
contributions of many lands. The speech music has become much more exaggerated than British
English, developing a strong and distinctive intonation. If you use this intonation, not only will you
be easier to understand, but you will sound much more confident, dynamic, and persuasive.
Intonation, or speech music, is the sound that you hear when a conversation is too far away to be
clearly audible but close enough for you to tell the nationality of the speakers. The American
intonation dictates liaisons and pronunciation, and it indicates mood and meaning. Without
intonation, your speech would be flat, mechanical, and very confusing for your listener. What is the
American intonation pattern? How is it different from other languages? Foa egzampuru, eefu you
hea ah Jahpahneezu pahsohn speakingu Ingurishu, the sound would be very choppy, mechanical,
and unemotional to an American. Za sem vey vis Cheuman pipples, it sounds too stiff. A mahn frohm
Paree ohn zee ahzer ahnd, eez intonashon goes up at zee end ov evree sentence, and has such a
strong intonation that he sounds romantic and highly emotional, but this may not be appropriate for a
lecture or a business meeting in English.
American Intonation Do's and Don'ts
Do Not Speak Word by Word
BOB IS ON THE PHONE
If you speak word by word, as many people who learned "printed" English do, you'll end up
sounding mechanical and foreign. You may have noticed the same thing happens in your own
language: When someone reads a speech, even a native speaker, it sounds stiff and stilted, quite
different from a normal conversational tone.
+ Connect words to form sound groups.
This is where you're going to start doing something completely different than what you have
done in your previous English studies. This part is the most difficult for many people because it
goes against everything they've been taught. Instead of thinking of each word as a unit, think of
sound units. These sound units may or may not correspond to a word written on a page. Native
speakers don't say Bob is on the phone, but say [bbizn the foun]. Sound units make a sentence
flow smoothly, like peanut butter— never really ending and never really starting, just flowing
along. Even chunky peanut butter is acceptable. So long as you don't try to put plain peanuts
directly onto your bread, you'll be OK.
+ Use staircase intonation.
Let those sound groups floating on the wavy river in the figure flow downhill and you'll get the
staircase. Staircase intonation not only gives you that American sound, it also makes you sound
much more confident. Not every American uses the downward staircase. A certain segment of
the population uses rising staircases—generally, teenagers on their way to a shopping mall: "Hi,
my name is Tiffany. I live in La Canada. I'm on the pep squad."
What Exactly Is Staircase Intonation?
In saying your words, imagine that they come out as if they were bounding lightly down a flight
of stairs. Every so often, one jumps up to another level, and then starts down again. Americans
tend to stretch out their sounds longer than you may think is natural. So to lengthen your vowel
sounds, put them on two stairsteps instead of just one.
We're here. I
///////// ///////// he
///////// ///////// ///////// re.
///////// ///////// ///////// /////////
The sound of an American speaking a foreign language is very distinctive, because we double
sounds that should be single. For example, in Japanese or Spanish, the word no is, to our ear,
clipped or abbreviated.
When you have a word ending in an unvoiced consonant—one that you "whisper" (t, k, s, x, f,
sh)—you will notice that the preceding vowel is said quite quickly, and on a single stairstep.
When a word ends in a vowel or a voiced consonant—one that you "say" (b, d, g, z, v, zh, j), the
preceding vowel is said more slowly, and on a double stairstep.
There are two main consequences of not doubling the second category of words: Either your
listener will hear the wrong word, or even worse, you will always sound upset.
Consider that the words curt, short, terse, abrupt, and clipped all literally mean short. When applied
to a person or to language, they take on the meaning of upset or rude. For example, in the
expressions "His curt reply ...," "Her terse response...'' or "He was very short with me" all indicate a
less than sunny situation.