Word War: Intonation vs Accent

When you speak with a specific speech pattern, is it because of your intonation or your accent? Throughout my career as a communications trainer, I have met a lot of people who use intonation and accent interchangeably. Normally, my trainees tell me that they need to focus on their accent because their intonation is inconsistent. It is understandable how many people confuse these words. At the same time, how are these words different from one another?

In linguistics, intonation and accent are two distinct components of spoken language and are rarely interchangeable. Intonation is the rise and fall of the voice in speaking while accent is the distinctive manner of pronouncing a language associated with a particular region, social group, etc, whether of a native speaker or a foreign speaker, or the phonetic and phonological aspects of a dialect.

Intonation serves several pragmatical functions in a spoken language: it can tell us the difference between a statement and a question, express emphasis, and to convey surprise or irony. For example, in the English language, a rising intonation distinguishes a yes-no question from a WH question and a statement. It also helps the speaker focus on certain words of the message to give emphasis. For example: I saw a man in the garden answers “Whom did you see?” or “What happened?” while I saw a man in the garden answers “Did you hear a man in the garden?”

Accent, on the other hand, is the distinct mode of pronunciation. Accents typically differ in quality of the voice, pronunciation and distinction of vowels and consonants, stress, and prosody. Although grammar, semantics, vocabulary, and other language characteristics often vary concurrently with accent, the word accent may refer specifically to the differences in pronunciation. Take for example the word water. It is pronounced differently in Standard American (/ˈwɑː.t̬ɚr/) and Received British English (/ˈwɔː.tə/). Now, imagine all the other words that are pronounced differently between these dialects of English when used all together is speech. Of course that would make a two discrete speech patterns, and that is what we call accent.

Going back to the question, what do people refer to when they point out your speech pattern? When it is caused by the rise and fall of your voice, it is your intonation; and when it is caused by your pronunciation, that is your accent.


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