What Are The Differences Between Accent, Pitch, Tone And Stress?

Turns out when someone says “don’t use that tone with me,” they really mean “don’t use that intonation with me.”
A young, bearded man sitting in a chair demonstrating pitch, tone and stress

Learning your second language is often not like learning your first. You probably don’t even remember learning your native language — you just naturally picked it up. Oh, to be a baby! When you’re an adult learning a language, you’ll need to pay closer attention to certain concepts that can be confusing at first. Four topics that might give you trouble are accent, pitch, tone and stress.

You’ve probably heard all of these terms before and know at least vaguely what they refer to. You might not have spent much time thinking about how they work when you’re speaking a language, though. Learning the functions of accent, pitch, tone and stress can help you a lot when working on your pronunciation in a new language. 

What Is Accent?

To start, we have to talk about accent. This isn’t like geographical accents, where people pronounce words differently depending on where they’re from. This kind of accent describes how focus is placed on a particular syllable to distinguish it from the rest. Depending on the language, there can be a stress accent, a pitch accent or some combination of vocal features creating accent.

What Is Vocal Pitch?

Pitch is how high or low your voice is perceived to be. It’s only what it’s perceived to be, because it relies specifically on how the ear hears the sound. A sound is not “high” or “low” on its own; it has a higher or lower frequency, which the ear translates into pitch. It’s kind of like “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make any sound?” The answer is no, because sound only really happens when there’s an ear to translate it.

Some languages are pitch-accent languages, which means one syllable is marked by a different pitch. Japanese, Norwegian, Turkish and Swedish have all been classified as pitch-accent languages. Some linguists think that pitch-accent languages are poorly defined variants of tone languages, but others say they belong in a class all their own.

All spoken languages use pitch for intonation, which is generally the rise and fall of a person’s voice. If you want to ask a question in English, you might raise your tone at the end of a sentence. It’s the difference between “You want to go to the park.” and “You want to go to the park?” While that’s a notable example, intonation is used constantly. A sentence without any intonation at all would sound dull and quite literally monotone.

What Is Tone?

Tone refers specifically to languages that use pitch to differentiate between words. Tone and intonation, while similar, shouldn’t be confused. While intonation uses pitch to change meaning on the sentence level, tone uses pitch in every single word. In English, it doesn’t matter what pitch you use when you say a word, it will always mean the same thing; in tonal languages, the word is different depending on pitch.

If you’re learning a tonal language, it probably won’t be hard to figure out. It’s central to the whole process of speaking. Tonal languages include the many varieties of Chinese, Thai, Igbo, Yòrúba, Punjabi and Navajo.

What Is Word Stress?

Word stress, which is confusingly sometimes used interchangeably with accent, is where the emphasis is put in a sentence. Word stress is achieved by adjusting the loudness, length and, yes, the pitch of a syllable. The word stress in “emphasis,” for example, is on the first syllable.

Word stress varies depending on the language. English, for example, has variable stress, which means the stress in a word is unpredictable. This is a challenge for English learners, because you basically have to learn how each word is pronounced separately. Spanish, on the other hand, has a more predictable word stress, and it is often explicitly shown with an accent mark. And there are some languages like Finnish and Hungarian where the stress almost always falls on the same syllable (first, second, last, etc.) in any given word.

When you’re learning a language, determining how pitch, tone and stress work can be a very helpful thing to determine early on. Rather than spending your first months guessing at where stress goes or how pitch comes into play, you can take advantage of your non-baby brain to figure out a few rules and jump ahead of the learning curve. 

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