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
Connect Words to Form Sound Groups
Use Staircase Intonation
/////////// bi /////////
////////// ///////// zän /////////
////////// //////// ///////// the /////////
///////// ///////// ///////// ///////// /////////
Start a new staircase when you want to emphasize that information, generally a noun.
+ Do not speak word by word.
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 [bäbizän 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
We///////// 're///////// ///////// 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.
No///////// ou///////// /////////
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.
see///////// eed///////// /////////
Voiced 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.
Three Ways to Make Intonation
About this time, you're coming to the point where you may be wondering, what exactly are the mechanics of intonation? What changes when you go to the top of the staircase or when you put stress on a word? There are three ways to stress a word.
+ The first way is to just get louder or raise the volume. This is not a very sophisticated way of doing it, but it will definitely command attention.
+ The second way is to streeeeetch the word out or lengthen the word that you want to draw attention to (which sounds very insinuating).
+ The third way, which is the most refined, is to change pitch. Although pausing just before changing the pitch is effective, you don't want to do it every time, because then it becomes an obvious technique. However, it will make your audience stop and listen because they think you're going to say something interesting.