Is intonation important? Why and why not?

Intonation (linguistics)

Have you ever wondered how we, as listeners, recognize whether the person we are talking to has just made a statement or asked a question to which he expects an answer from us?

In German, the word order first gives an indication of the type of sentence, e.g. compare the statement in (1) with the question in (2).

(1) Peter goes to school.

(2) Does Peter go to school?

In German, questions are syntactically marked by inversion - i.e. the shifting of parts of sentences. In Spanish, the position of the subject is usually not changed to distinguish a statement from a question. The subject Pedro is, for example, in the first place in both the question (3) and the statement (4).

(3) Pedro va a la escuela. ‘Pedro goes to school.’

(4) ¿Pedro va a la escuela? ‘Does Pedro go to school?’

Instead, intonation is used in Spanish to indicate the type of sentence. That means, the sentence melody is different depending on the sentence type: Compared to statements, question sentences have a higher intonation contour at the end.

Incidentally, in Spanish there is often no explicit subject, see (5) and (6).

(5) Va a la escuela. ‘He / she goes to school.’

(6) ¿Va a la escuela? ‘Does he / she go to school?’

In such cases question and statement sentences can of course not be differentiated from each other by the structure of the sentence, especially here intonation is very important. (In German, however, every sentence must contain an explicit subject. The Spanish sentences (5) and (6) can only be reproduced using the pronoun he or you is realized as a subject.)


In the following you will hear four pairs of Spanish sentences, each consisting of a statement and a question. Tick ​​what you hear: question or statement? (It is not important whether you understand the meaning of the Spanish sentence. Just pay attention to the sentence melody.)