Thursday, 28 January 2016

Stress and Intonation between Malay and English


According to Fromkin and Rodman (1993), knowing a language means knowing what sounds are in that particular language and what sounds are not. This subconscious knowledge of the language is revealed when a speaker pronounces sounds from another language. For example, if a person is a native-speaker of English, he may substitute English sounds for sounds which are not familiar to him. This is also true in cases of intonation patterns.


Before going into intonation, it would be useful to look at stress first. Malay and English have different stress patterns. Thomson (1996) pointed out that English is a stress-timed language. Stress is important and has its own functions in the language. Native speakers of English more often than not, rely on the stress patterns (and intonation) to infer and identify meanings of words or utterances because different stress could mean differently. The stress syllables in an English sentence occur at regular intervals. They are usually longer and louder than the unstressed, often with a higher pitch. The unstressed syllables must be made to fit in-between the stressed syllables and do not disturb or change the “beat” or “rhythm”. The unstressed syllables are reduced and said quickly and quietly.

However, Malay, being a syllable-timed language, the stress falls in the same place in the sentence each time, making it predictable. Juliah (1993) stated that stress does exist in Malay, but it does not have any particular significant function. The stressed syllables are generally produced with equal length and loudness. According to Platt and Weber (1980), in a syllable-timed rhythm, “all syllables, stressed or unstressed, recur at equal interval of time, such as –’or —’ extending up to —–’.”


Hawkins (1984) believes that there are three basic properties in intonation. They are:

1.  It is universal, which every language makes use of intonation, and spoken language is not monotonous. For example, English makes use of changes in tone as part of the sentence phrase, while the Chinese uses it as lexical distinction,

2.  Intonation has its own functions and purposes in spoken language, and not for “decorative purposes”,

3.  Intonation is systematic because each speaker has to use the same pattern for the same purpose.

As we already know, intonation plays a lot of roles in an English utterance. Many linguists have suggested several functions of intonation. Roach (1991) stated that there are four functions of intonation in English which are often proposed. They are:

1.  It enables the speakers to express their emotions or attitudes, and this function is called attitudinal function of intonation. For example, a bored person would likely to use a level tone when answering a question.

2. Intonation also helps to produce the prominent effect on syllables that need to be perceived as stressed. This will mark out the word as the most important in the utterance. For example (as given in Roach), (a) is non- emphatic and (b) is emphatic:

(a) It was very BOring.
(b) It was VEry boring.

This intonation function is called the accentual function.

3. Intonation plays a role in grammar, which is called the grammatical function of intonation. The listener is better able to identify the grammar and syntactic structure of what is being said. For instance, in differentiating whether an utterance is a question or a statement.

4. Finally, intonation also has a discourse function. In a conversation, for example, it helps the listener to recognise whether the information is new or already given, and to give the appropriate and expected response.

Roach (1991) added that though the functions of intonation is identified and categorised, these functions can sometimes overlap. For example, attitudinal function may overlap with the discourse function of intonation.

Intonation in Malay

Stress does not play an important role in Malay. Ramish (1971) says that (as cited in Suhaila, 1994) Malay words are not distinguished by the contrast of stress. Malay speakers do not depend on stress to give emphasis, but they change the word order to do it.

However, intonation does have its own part in Malay utterances. It is used in spoken Malay mainly to express emotions and attitudes. The patterns may differ from English intonation. Checketts (1993) stated that Malay speakers who speak English have the tendency not to use the rising tone, such in English, to signal lists or sequences of verbs. In addition to that, a rising tone is always used at the end of a statement or list.

In terms of attitudinal function of intonation, the stress could fall almost anywhere in an utterance, depending on what is emphasised. A rising, falling, falling-rising and rising-falling tones are used somehow quite differently from English. As an example given by Checketts (1993), in giving a list of items, Malay speakers of English tend to use a falling tone with each item. Due to the differences, English as second language learners, specifically Malay students whose mother tongue is Malay, encounter difficulties in acquiring the correct patterns of English intonation and stress patterns.

Intonation in English

Intonation has an equal importance with stress in English. As we have seen before, intonation in English has several functions. In addition to that, Roach (1991) stated several typical intonation occurrences in English:

1. Falling tone is used to show finality and usually neutral.

2. Rising tone has many functions, for example, are in listing, yes/no questions, and incomplete statement.

3. Falling-rising tone is used mainly in limited agreement or having reservations, and excitement.

4. Rising-falling tone is used in expressing strong feeling of agreement/disagreement or in being sarcastic.

Though intonation in English is said to have several functions, Carnie (1998) believes that intonation is actually a “realisation of semantics, rather than syntax.” He added that this is due to the nature of intonation itself, and the fact that people draw inferences from what is said and how it is said.


Checketts, S. 1993. Thoughts on Pronunciation. New Straits Times, 27 October: 30

Roach, P. 1991. English Phonetics and Phonology : a practical course (2nd ed.). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Suhaila Sulong. 1994. A study on the B.Ed. TESL students’ usage of word stress patterns in speech. Academic exercise. University Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Thomson, D. 1996. Second Language Acquisition. PPP-ITM : Mass Lecture.

Hawkins, P. 1984. Introducing Phonology. London : Hutchinson

Juliah Mohamad Beon.1993. Stress and meaning : Malay UKM students’ ability to apply English word stress. Academic exercise. University Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Fromkin and Rodman. 1993. An Introduction to Language. New York : Holt, Rinehart, and Winston
Carnie, A. 1998. Review : Watt : Phonology and Semiology of Intonation.

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