David Deterding

Intonational Phonology. D. Robert Ladd. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 334 pp.

To understand the importance of this book, we need to consider briefly the history of the analysis and description of intonation.

For segmental phonetics (dealing with vowels and consonants), we have fairly well-established conventions. Even though the status of the phoneme is not universally accepted, most linguists are at least happy to work with phoneme-sized segments, and there are not too many variations in the inventory of symbols used. Unfortunately, the same has never been true for intonation, where there have always been fundamental disagreements about whether to use pitch levels or pitch contours, and whether intonation patterns consist of a series of discrete tones or complete tunes extending over the whole of an utterance. Furthermore, while it is reasonably easy to get a computer to output pitch plots, it has proven rather difficult to map these pitch plots on to a phonology of intonational patterns and thereby interpret what the changes in pitch actually mean.

A seminal work that (many people claim) resolved most of these issues in the description of intonation was the PhD thesis of Janet Pierrehumbert (1980). However, while her thesis has been immensely influential, it is not easily available, and most people who have read it seem to have had access to a photocopied version.

Pierrehumbert described intonation in terms of two levels, labelled H (for ‘high’) and L (for ‘low’), and she explicitly related the analysis to the acoustic pitch track output by a computer. Her proposals were modified slightly and developed into the ToBI system of intonational transcription. (ToBI stands for ‘Tones and Break Indices’—but the rationale for this name need not concern us here.) Although the ToBI system has now been adopted by many different linguists for the transcription of a wide range of languages, unfortunately the usual reference for it is a very brief conference paper (Silverman et al., 1992), and there is still no easily-available guide to it.

Ladd’s book finally provides us with a comprehensive published overview of the ToBI system. Here, the main components of the ToBI system will be introduced before some of the features of the book are discussed.

The ToBI system breaks down the transcription of intonation into a linear set of components. The basic idea is that some features, such as rising pitch that may occur at the end of some kinds of questions, have a meaning that can be analysed separately from the pitch movements that occur over the rest of the utterance. In other words, intonation can be broken down into its parts, each of which contributes a distinct role. The components are:

To illustrate how this system of intonation works in practice, let us consider the transcription of a couple of utterances from Ladd’s book. Sentence [1] is from page 97 of the book.

         H*                        L+H*   L              L%
[1]   That was the whole point of the exercise.

In sentence [1], there are two pitch accents, a simple H* tone on 'that', and a compound L+H* tone, indicating emphatic stress, on 'point'. (The second of these pitch accents might be equated with a rise-fall tone in a traditional British analysis.) Following the second pitch accent, there is an L phrase tone and an L% boundary tone, so the utterance ends with quite a long low-pitched tail.

The pattern in sentence [2], from page 122 of the book, is claimed to be common for polite yes-no questions in British English but not in American English.

                    H*         H*    L    H%
[2]   Could I have the bill please?

Here the two H* pitch accents are aligned with 'have' and 'bill', and there is a dip in pitch associated with the L phrase tone before a final rise associated with the final H% boundary tone.

Ladd thus provides a very welcome overview of this important system of intonational transcription. However, his book is certainly not a tutorial guide to the use of ToBI, for it contributes much valuable theoretical material to the development of the system, particularly in those areas which are still being debated, such as the relationship between ToBI and a metrical analysis of stress, and also the nature of declination (the tendency for pitch to fall gradually over the course of an utterance) and whether this needs to be shown explicitly in the tonal representation. Furthermore, Ladd discusses in depth a number of important issues in the study of intonation, such as the nature of deaccenting (where information that is repeated becomes less prominent), the existence of a nuclear tone or whether a nuclear tone is just another name for the final phrase accent, and the possibility of language universal intonational patterns such as the tendency for questions to be realized with a final H% boundary tone.

Many of these issues are quite technical, and it is doubtful if someone without at least some background in the study of intonation could follow them easily. While the book therefore provides a valuable overview of the ToBI system, it also represents an extremely important contribution to the debate on a number of crucial theoretical issues in the study of intonation, and as a consequence it would almost certainly prove rather too tough for most undergraduate students. In this sense, therefore, it is unfortunate that we still do not have an easy way for non-specialists to become familiar with the ToBI system.


Pierrehumbert, J. (1980). The Phonology and Phonetics of English Intonation. PhD Thesis, MIT.

Silverman, Kim, Mary E. Beckman, John Pitrelli, Mari Ostendorf, Colin Wightman, Patti Price, Janet Pierrehumbert, and Julia Hirschberg. (1992). ToBI: a standard for labeling English prosody. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, 2: 867-70. Banff, Canada.