Tone – how to understand it
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Tone – definition
To the linguist [or speech therapist] ‘tone’ means the quality of sound produced by the voice in uttering words.
In a general sense, ‘tone’ is the attitude of the speaker or writer as revealed in the choice of vocabulary or the
intonation of speech.
This attitude might be immediately apparent — in tone of voice, for instance.
It might on the other hand be a complex and subtle manner which takes time to establish — in an extended piece of writing, for instance.
Written or spoken communication might be described as having a tone which is, for instance:
ironic serious flippant threatening light-hearted pessimistic
Tone is used to convey an attitude. This may be done consciously or unconsciously.
It could be said that there is no such thing as a text or verbal utterance without a tone.
In most cases, tone is either taken for granted, or perceived unconsciously.
NB! Tone is sometimes difficult to describe and analyse. It’s a subtle and complex matter.
Tone, taken at its most literal, is a feature of non-verbal communication. It is the physical level at which the sound of the human voice is transmitted.
Linguists and speech therapists chart intonation patterns by a system of marks on the page to suggest the rising and falling of the voice tone.
Intonation is the term by which we refer to the patterns of sound which are evident in every utterance. We sometimes use the term ‘monotone’ to imply an absence of intonation. This usually suggests some negative state of mind on the part of the speaker.
Every language has its standard set of intonation patterns. These have to be learnt by the non-native speaker as an essential constituent of the transmission of meaning.
The intonation patterns of a language are the first things a child learns in its progress as a speaker. They are the first elements a child selects from the body of ‘comprehensible imput’ which is necessary to trigger the acquisition process.
Interestingly, intonation is a difficult hurdle for the second-language learner. It seems that the intonation of one’s own native language becomes deeply internalised, and the ability to hear the intonation of a second language is not as sharp as it is in a young child.
We can, perhaps, appreciate these difficulties if we take the single word ‘hello’ and consider the variations possible in expressing it to imply an attitude. [This isn’t easy to reproduce on screen, but bear with us.]
‘Hello, hello, hello.’ stereotype policeman ‘Hello?’ ‘Is anyone there?’ ‘Hello!’ ‘At last I’ve found it!’ ‘Hello!’ ‘Here we go again!’ ‘Hello!’ ‘Fancy meeting you.’ and of course… ‘Hello!’ Greeting a friend
Even a non-verbal utterance such as a cough or a clearing of the throat can be eloquent by means of its tone. An example of this is the cough which says ‘Be careful! People are listening in to what you’re saying’. A slightly different cough acts as a warning not to go any further with an action or an utterance.
Intonation as part of literary writing is conveyed often by narrative description as in:
‘Oh Jeremy!’ she exclaimed in a shocked tone.
‘Jeremy!’ she screamed, as she saw him leap from the parapet.
As practised readers, we infer the tone of literary dialogue without the explicit narrative description used in the first example given above. We hear the delivery in our mind’s ‘ear’ as clearly as we hear it in reality when taking part in a dialogue ourselves.
Tone is perhaps applied more widely in an almost metaphoric sense to convey a whole attitude. For instance we might receive a letter from someone expressing the sentiment that they had trusted us, but felt let down by something we had done. The letter might have an ironic tone, or an angry tone, or an indignant tone.
Tone in this sense is conveyed by an amalgam of choice of vocabulary and syntax on the part of the writer. For the reader, this selection creates an imaginary audible impression, as the tone is heard in the mind’s ear.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2004
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