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What is a tonic syllable? 

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Chelsea Franklin eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Intonation is the rise and fall of a speaker's voice while speaking a sentence. When a speaker's voice rises at the end of the sentence, for example, it often indicates a question is being asked. Intonation allows a speaker to communicate meaning that might otherwise be represented by punctuation in a written sentence.

A sentence can be broken into different tone units, in which one word will contain the tonic syllable. This word will contain the main stress of that tonic unit. A famous example of the use of the tonic syllable is the sentence, "I never said she stole my money." By changing the tonic syllable, this sentence can have seven different meanings.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "I," the speaker conveys that while someone may have said, "she stole my money," it was not the speaker.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "never," the speaker is insisting that s/he never made this statement.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "said," the speaker indicates that his sentence was not spoken by him/her.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "she," the speaker suggests that s/he never accused this person of stealing the money.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "stole," the speaker explains that s/he never accused theft.

I never said she stole my money. By placing the emphasis on "my," the speaker indicates it's not his/her money that was stolen.

I never said she stole my money. Finally, by placing the emphasis on "money," the speaker clarifies that it's not money that was stolen.

In each case, the emphasized word is the tonic syllable of its sentence.

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Gwen Lesch eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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A tonic syllable is the most important syllable in a tone unit; it is the syllable that is the main stress of that unit. That being said, an important distinction to understand here is that the tonic syllable, while being the most important stress, is not necessarily the most prominent stress. Tonic syllables and their placements can vary across different languages, but in English there can be only one tonic syllable per tone unit. English tone units may also include a head, pre-head, or a tail, all which reflect different components of the sentence flanking the tonic syllable. 

All this information pertains to a component of linguistics dealing with intonation, or the variation in pitch that expresses a speaker's attitude or feelings, indicates assertion versus questioning, and places emphasis on a particular part of a sentence. Understanding the role of intonation is particularly important for those learning English because our five primary tone types--rise, fall, rise-fall, fall-rise, and level--reinforce emotion, grammar, and rhetoric. It also is a significant factor in controlling the way others listen to us!

 

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