UK declarative rises and the frequency code

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One of the most often-cited generalisations about intonation is that in a majority of languages from all over the world, falling intonation is systematically associated with statements and rising intonation with questions and continuations. John Ohala’s frequency code (1983), according to which high pitch symbolises small and weak while low pitch symbolises big and strong, is an attempt to provide a psychological basis for this generalisation. There are however counter-examples to this universal tendency. (i) Several languages (Danish, Finnish, Western Arabic) (Hirst & Di Cristo 1998) are reported not to use rising pitch for questions, although there may be a global raising of pitch. (ii) A number of Urban Northern British (UNB) accents (Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Birmingham, Tyneside) (Cruttenden 1986) are well known for the opposite violation of this general tendancy in that they systematically use rising pitch at the end of what are clearly statements. In one of the first descriptions of the UNB rising patterns, Knowles (1975) suggested that this pattern could be of Celtic origin (he calls them ‘Irish falls’ “which, perversely, go up.”), since the speakers of the Liverpool dialect which he studied (Scouse) were mostly of Irish origin. Cruttenden (1994) questioned this hypothesis, since while it would account for most of the UNB cities, it would not account for Tyneside (Pellow & Jones 1977). Cruttenden cites evidence that the Irish population there was almost inexistant before 1830 and that the Scots who lived in this area were mainly from the Eastern lowland regions where the pattern is not observed, whereas there is documentary evidence that the “Tyneside Tone” was well established before the nineteenth century. The hypothesis also fails to explain why the pattern is found in only some parts of the Celtic speaking areas of Britain but not in others (Southern Ireland, Wales, Eastern Scotland). A very tentative historical explanation for this distribution will be suggested. The article will conclude with the presentation of a new hypothesis concerning a possible origin for this intonation pattern, showing that, rather unexpectedly, it could be interpreted as an illustration of the frequency code, despite the fact that it appears to be doing exactly the opposite.


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