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.