Friday, 13 September 2013

Intonation and train announcements

This is a post about the intonation of announcements on trains in the UK. 

I didn't actually think it was worth posting on this topic until one of my students on the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics mentioned that he thought the intonation was odd - and he was talking particularly about a feature which I had noticed and thought amusing.

I was returning to Reading on the South West Trains London Waterloo service one evening when I noticed two things that interested me: first, the company who made the in-train announcements had chosen a falling-rising tone rather than a rising tone for certain functions; and second that the falling-rising tone was used in some unexpected places.

Excuse me while I explain a few things about intonation in standard British English, southern accent. This is taken from a chapter I wrote a while ago (Setter 2005) on Discourse Intonation and adopts that framework (see e.g. Brazil et al. 1980; Brazil 1997). There are four central elements to discourse intonation: tone, key, the tone unit and tonicity. I'm going to focus on tone here; readers with interest in the subject should seek the publications mentioned for a fuller introduction.

Tone refers to the major pitch movement(s) in an utterance. Brazil et al. (1980: 13) distinguish between five tones: falling, rising, falling-rising, rising-falling and level. The falling and falling-rising tones “embody the basic meaningful distinction carried by tone”, whereas the other three “can usefully be seen as marked options, understood and meaningful in contrast” (Brazil et al. 1980: 13).

The following example is given to show the contrast between two utterances using the two basic tones, falling and falling-rising (Brazil et al. 1980: 13); I have used  to indicate falling and  to indicate a falling-rising, and // indicates a tone unit boundary (or intonational phrase boundary):

(1)         // when I’ve finished Middlemarch // I shall read Adam Bede //

(2)         // when I’ve finished Middlemarch // I shall read Adam Bede //

Other meanings notwithstanding, by using the falling-rising tone on Middlemarch and the falling tone on Bede in example (1), the speaker is showing that he/she believes the listener already knows the speaker is reading Middlemarch, but does not know the next book the speaker intends to read is Adam Bede. By contrast, in example (2), it is believed that the intention to read Adam Bede is known, indicated by the falling-rising tone, but not the fact that the speaker is reading Middlemarch at the moment, indicated by the falling tone. The use of specific tones therefore indicates what the speaker believes either to be common ground in any utterance, be it general knowledge of the world or information mentioned earlier in the same piece of discourse or some other context, or unknown – whether information is given or new.

Brazil et al. state that “all interaction proceeds, and can only proceed, on the basis of the existence of a great deal of common ground between participants” (1980: 15). Given information, or common ground, is indicated by what Brazil et al. call “referring” tones, and new information is indicated by “proclaiming” tones (1980: 15). The falling tone is therefore the default proclaiming tone, and is given the symbol p, which is placed at the beginning of the tone unit. The falling-rising tone is default referring tone, and is indicated by the symbol r. The nucleus, referred to as the tonic syllable, is capitalised and underlined; the two examples above could therefore be represented as follows:

(1a)       r when i’ve finished MIDdlemarch // p i shall read adam BEDE //

(2a)       p when i’ve finished MIDdlemarch // r i shall read adam BEDE //

The choice of tone used by a speaker is, then, dependent on the speaker’s evaluation of “the relationship between the message and the audience” (Brazil 1980: 18) – whether the speaker believes information in the message to be given or new. From this point of view, the speaker might be assuming common ground which does not exist, and therefore erroneously using referring tones, or using proclaiming tones where the information is, in fact, already part of the common ground.

The other tones mentioned are rising, rising-falling and level. The rising and rising-falling tones are variants of the r and p tones respectively; the symbol for the rising tone is r+, and for the rising-falling tone, p+. The level tone is symbolised with an o.

An r+ tone is used to reactivate background material. Brazil et al. give the following example (1980: 53):

(3)         Where’s the typewriter?

(3a)       r in the CUPboard // (where it always is)

(3b)       r+ in the CUPboard // (why don’t you ever remember …)

In (3a), the fact of the typewriter being in the cupboard is deemed by the speaker to be “vividly present in the background”, whereas in (3b) the speaker is indicating that the listener has to be reminded of what should be common knowledge.

Use of the r or r+ tone can, therefore, show the relationship between speakers in a conversation. The r+ tone is used by a speaker who is assuming some kind of dominant role in the conversation, and is commonly used by teachers in teacher-student interactions, doctors in doctor-patient interactions, or those giving directions or instructions to someone who (it is assumed) has no prior knowledge. As Brazil et al. point out, a patient who starts a doctor-patient interaction with an r+ tone will sound rather aggressive (4); an r tone is usually used (5) (examples from Brazil et al. 1980: 16 & 54). 

(4)         r+ i’ve COME to SEE you // p with the RASH // r+ i’ve GOT on my CHIN //

(5)         r  i’ve COME to SEE you // p with the RASH // r i’ve GOT on my CHIN //

(Where there are other stressed syllables preceding the tonic syllable, these are capitalised but not underlined in this system.)

The p+ tone (rising-falling), like the p tone, is used to indicate that the information is new, but with the additional meaning of being surprising, disappointing or horrifying to the speaker also – the speaker is adding “to his own store of knowledge” (Brazil et al. 1980: 56). It is noted that the p+ tone tends to be used by a dominant speaker.

The level tone, symbolised o and referred to as the “oblique” tone, is used to indicate that the speaker considers he/she has not arrived at the potential completion point of an utterance (Brazil et al. 1980: 88), but it can also show that the speaker is not very involved in, e.g., reading a passage.

OK, that's the end of the section from Setter (2005). Are you still with me?

On South West Trains, some of the announcements are something like the following:

(6)         This is the South West Trains service from London Waterloo to Reading, calling at Vauxhall, Clapham Junction, Putney, Richmond, Twickenham, Hounslow, Feltham, Ashford, Staines, Egham, Virginia Water, Longcross, Sunningdale, Ascot, Martin's Heron, Bracknell, Wokingham, Winnersh, Winnersh Triangle, Earley and Reading.

(7)         The next station is Sunningdale.

(8)         This station is Sunningdale.  The next station is Ascot.

These announcements are clearly made up of "slots" - e.g.:

(6a)       This is the (slot 1) service from (slot 2) to (slot 3), calling at (slots 4, 5, 6 ...) .... and (slot 7).

(7a)       The next station is (slot 1).

(8a)       This station is (slot 1).  The next station is (slot 2).

In order to do this, the company producing the announcements has to have some kind of idea of how intonation works. Among other things, we are dealing with a list in (6) and (6a), so some slots will have an intonation pattern which indicates the speaker has not got to the end of the list, requiring a referring (r) tone of some kind - i.e., slots 2, 4, 5 and 6 in (6a) - and a pattern which indicates the end of a list, requiring a proclaiming (p) tone of some kind - i.e., slots 3 and 7 in (6a). The company has therefore recorded two versions of each town/city at which the train stops, one with an r tone and one with a p tone. In (7a), the p tone is used in slot 1 as this is a statement.

The intonation patterns are as follows:

(6b)         r this is the SOUTH west TRAINS service // from LONdon waterLOO // p to READing // r calling at VAUXhall // r CLAPham JUNCtion // PUTney // RICHmond // TWICKenham // HOUNSlow // FELtham // ASHford // STAINES // EGham // r virGINia WATer // LONGcross //  SUNningdale // AScot //  MARtin's HERon // BRACKnell // WOkingham // WINnersh // r WINnersh TRIangle // EARley // and READing //

(7b)         the NEXT station // p is SUNningdale //

(8b)         r THIS station // r is SUNningdale //  r the NEXT station // p is AScot //

Can you spot the things which amuse me?

First, as the announcement being made is authoritative, I would expect the referring tone in the list to be a rising tone (r+) rather than falling-rising (r). This was what the very observant non-native English-speaking student asked me about in class this year. One could argue that commuters take this train every day and so the information is already "vividly present" in the background somehow ("this train always stops at these stations and you know it" - see 3a above), but I'm going to dismiss that.

Second, in (8b), the company who selects which spoken version of the town/city goes into which slot has chosen an r tone for "Sunningdale" - i.e., (8a) slot 1. I assume this is because there is another town/city about to be mentioned later in the announcement (slot 2 - this correctly has a p tone on it) and so the company sees it a type of list. However, whenever I hear this it makes me laugh, because using an r tone here makes it sounds like a surprise that one has arrived in e.g. Sunningdale.

(9)         This station is Sunningdale  ..??
              ... What??? I was expecting Longcross! I must have fallen asleep! Blast!!

What should it be on "Sunningdale" in slot 1 (8a)? A falling tone (p), of course ("this is definitely Sunningdale and you don't have to be in any doubt about it").

So, next time you are on trains in the UK, listen to see what intonation patterns are being used. Has the automated system of putting things in slots in announcements worked? Do let me know!

(Don't get me started on nucleus placement on prepositions ...)


Brazil, D. (1997). The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brazil, D., Coulthard, M., and Johns, C. (1980). Discourse Intonation and Language Teaching. Harlow: Longman.

Setter, J. (2005). Communicative patterns of intonation in L2 English teaching and learning: the impact of discourse approaches. In K. Dziubalska-Kołaczyk & J. Przedlacka (Eds.), English Pronunciation Models: a changing scene, Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 367-389.


  1. Jane, something similar has happened to me on Italian trains:

    1. A good post. Of course, L2 intonation patterns are a-whole-nother area. Tonicity - as you comment - can be an issue in L2, and is important for meaning. The problem I have with South West Trains' announcement is tone choice.

  2. slippery subject + effective exemplification = printer at work

  3. This is really interesting and I can see why it amused you! You've also given me the confidence to "out" myself as someone who got excited about the intonation patterns of a train announcement:

    This wasn't so much about the intonation used as the placement of the tonic syllable. I'm regularly on trains that pass through "didcot PARKway", with the standard falling-rising intonation. On one particularly difficult journey back from Wales, I was diverted to Newport Gwent before I could get on a train to Reading. This is quite near Bristol Parkway station so a lot of the announcements mentioned it, and I wasn't surprised to hear "bristol PARKway" with the same falling-rising pattern as it's the same structure as Didcot.

    What really got me though was when the announcement for my train came through, calling at Bristol Parkway, Swindon, Didcot Parkway, Reading and London Paddington. I can't underline on here so I've stuck to capitalizing only the tonic syllables:

    // (r) calling at bristol PARKway // (r) SWINdon // (r) DIDcot parkway // (r) READing // (p) and london PADDington //

    Because of the existence of a previous "Parkway" in the list, they've actually recorded a third version of "Didcot Parkway" with the TS on the first syllable to mimic ordinary speech - "not BRIStol parkway this time, but DIDcot parkway instead". Pretty impressive, I think!

    I spent the rest of the journey saying the list over and over under my breath trying different intonation patters and probably worrying the other passengers.

    1. You are a true linguistics geek, Chris. :-D

  4. A most interesting post. Sorry to be so late.

    Re. 6(b):
    a. 20 referring tones would, in human speech, be very unusual I suspect. Surely, some grouping would happen – possibly like this, from a human announcer way back in the early 60’s, on a neighbouring line:
    pWhitton Feltham Ashford Staines
    rVirginia Water,
    This heard example was not from a native speaker, but I think that a native speaker might have done the same or similar. Regardless of the grouping, the tones would be r, or r+ as you suggest. (The first p tone just provides variety, I suppose, though the provision of variety may not be in the DI system!)
    b. I have the impression that a consistent rising intonation for lists does appear in long formulaic announcements, where it gives the impression of detached weariness and bureaucratic predictability: authoritarianness rather than authoritativeness!

    1. You may well be right on both counts. But these are automated messages I'm talking about. I'm the days of real, live announcers anything could happen. :-)

  5. Apologies in advance as I am not a linguist (not even sure what that is......sorry) but happened to stumble across this blog and this topic reminded me of a recent trip I made on the Paris Metro. I was fascinated by the hugely exaggerated tones of the announcements for each station; initially intrigued ... but, after a few stops it became annoying ...almost disturbing ! As the the metro approached each station it was announced in advance with such anticipation that I was almost excited to discover I would soon be in the environs of Saint Sulpice, St Placide and, soon after, Montparnasse Bienvenue - wow ! Montparnasse ! Get me out quick ! Open the bloody doors 'coz this is where I want to be. Each of the seven syllables was pronounced with such a rising crescendo of enthusiasm that you would have thought Jane Birkin had been spotted strolling naked down the very boulevard just a few metres above our heads...but wait ! what's this ! Just as the doors are about to open there is a sudden dramatic mood change. What the JacquesChirac is this all about ? The announcer suddenly puts the mockers on the whole Jane Birkin expectation thing by announcing the Montparnasse Bienvenue in such a bloody moody French 'shrugged-shoulders' way that I feel more like chucking myself in the must be a real skill to pronounce seven syllables starting low and going down the scale.

    1. Wonderful! Good to know that it's not just English train announcements which amuse. :-D

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