Public Release: 

Questions have a higher pitch

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

In the Dutch language questions are spoken with a higher pitched voice than statements. This was revealed in experimental linguistic research conducted by Judith Haan at the University of Nijmegen. Her research supports the hypothesis that the intonation of questions has a biological origin. In many languages, questions have a higher average pitch than statements. Linguist Judith Haan has demonstrated that Dutch is not an exception to this. Her results support the theory of the American linguist Ohala, who proposes that the raised pitch in questions has a biological origin. Research has shown that mammals and birds upon meeting one of their own kind, can estimate the physical supremacy of the other, based on the pitch of the sound they make. A sound with a lower pitch or lower frequency indicates a larger body.

According to Ohala this so-called frequency code also plays a role in human speech. Asking a question can be seen as a form of dependency: for certain information the enquirer is dependent upon the listener. This is expressed in the form of a high pitch and could explain why this phenomenon is found in such a wide range of languages. This elevated pitch reveals itself immediately at the start of the interrogative sentence (also in Dutch), something which Spanish texts express very appropriately by placing an upside down question mark at the start of the interrogative sentence.

Judith Haan made ten subjects read out four types of sentences. In this manner she collected 200 ordinary statements. 200 statements which could also serve as a question (for example, "He is going to London?"), 200 questions in which the subject and the verb were inverted (for example, "Is he going to London?") and 200 questions with an interrogative word at the start (for example, "When is he going to London?"). Judith Haan compared these sentences against five melodic characteristics.

It was noticeable that the women in the experiment tended to make greater tonal movements. This enabled them to more clearly differentiate between statements and the three types of question than the men. Judith Haan supposes that women make more use of intonation because in communicating they particularly strive for clarity and furthermore they are less afraid of adopting a position of dependency.

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For further information please contact Judith Haan (Department of General Linguistics and Dialectology, University of Nijmegen), tel. +31 (0)26 4822282 (home), e-mail: j.haan@let.kun.nl

Judith Haan defended her doctoral thesis on 20 February 2002. Ms Haan's supervisors were Prof. V. van Heuven (Leiden University) and Prof. C. Gussenhoven (University of Nijmegen).

The research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

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