in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Discourse Intonation

Discourse Intonation is an approach to the teaching and analysis of everyday speech. It consists of four components: a theory, a set of categories & realisations, a notation, and transcription practice.

A list of key publications, which have had a major influence on classroom practice is given at the bottom of this page.


Discourse Intonation was developed at The University of Birmingham (UK) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The originator of this approach was David Brazil (1925-1995), working with Professors John Sinclair and Malcolm Coulthard. It became influential in English Language Teaching (ELT) in the mid 1980s and 1990s, both for teacher training (language awareness) and classroom practice (pronunciation). This influence continues to grow, and DI is increasingly used in academic research.

DI views intonation as discoursal (not grammatical, not attitudinal) in function. ‘The significance of intonation is related to the function of the utterance as an existentially appropriate contribution to an interactive discourse’ (Brazil 1984:46). ‘By making a choice in any of the intonation systems … a speaker makes some kind of assumption about what he/she takes, for present purposes, to be the state of understanding between him/her and a hearer’ (Brazil 1997:132). Speakers thus make intonation choices according to their perception of the understandings they share with their hearers: these understandings relate to their shared biographies, and to the purposes of their talk in a particular context. Although syntax and intonation do have a relationship in purpose-driven talk (Brazil, 1995), they are regarded as being separate areas of choice. Thus DI holds that there is no ‘normal’ relationship between tone units and clauses.

‘Discoursal in function, not grammatical, not attitudinal’

Categories & realisations

DI is concerned with the speakers’ moment-by-moment context-referenced choices. It recognises four systems of speaker choice: prominence, tone, key, and termination.

Four systems: prominence, tone, key, termination.

Each of these systems adds an increment of interpersonal meaning to the discourse between speaker and hearer(s).

The tone unit

DI considers that the majority of speech can be divided into units which have either one or two prominences. The two-prominence tone-unit (known as the ‘maximal’) is the typical case: the first prominence (the onset) is non-tonic, the second prominence is tonic, the location of the tone. Unlike other descriptions of intonation, DI does not attribute any significance to the location of boundaries. The tone-unit ends somewhere between the occurrence of a tone, and the onset prominence of the following tone-unit. The example below shows a double-prominence tone unit – click on the speaker icon to hear it.

You can hear this unit in Chapter 5 of Streaming Speech, British and Irish version. In both the British/Irish version, and the American/Canadian version, Chapter 10 contains an intensive training course in using Discourse Intonation to analyse recordings for teaching purposes.


Speakers have a choice of five tones: two with final downward glides (fall & rise-fall) two with final rising glides (rise & fall-rise) and a non-glide, the level tone. These tones are demonstrated below on the word 'then' (the example is taken from Streaming Speech Chapter 10).

The fall and rise-fall are 'proclaiming' tones which add the increment of meaning 'I am telling you this' to the tone-units in which they occur.

The rise and fall-rise tones are 'referring' tones which add the increment of meaning 'I assume that this is part of our shared experience'.

The level tone opts out of the proclaiming/referring choice, and signifies that the speaker has a focus on the wording which he/she is compiling, rather than on interpersonal interactivity.

The examples above have tones on a monosyllable. But as you can hear below, the tone may be spread as many as eight syllables.

Below is a section of a recording which shows the whole range of tones, and below that a table which explains the DI meanings of the occurrence of each tone.



Key and Termination

Speakers have the choice of placing prominent syllables low, mid, or high in relation to the previous prominence. These choices, on the onset prominence, comprise the system of key; on the tonic prominence, the system of termination. Low key adds an increment of meaning 'This tone unit has an equative relationship with what has gone before'; high key adds 'This tone unit has a denial of expectation relationship to what has preceeded', or 'This is discourse-initial'. Low termination adds an increment of meaning 'This is discourse-final'; high termination adds 'This is something I want you to give judgement on'. The example below (from Chapter 7 of Streaming Speech) shows high, mid, and low key on the word 'NO':


The notation of DI began (in the 1970s) as a type-writer friendly notation using UPPER CASE letters for prominent syllables, lower-case letters for non-prominent syllables, underlining for the tonic syllable, and lines up or down for high and low key and termination. Symbols for the tones were given in letter form, with 'p' for proclaiming (falling) tones, and 'r' for referring (rising) tones. After the advent of the word-processor, more use was made of arrows. The example below (from Chapter 7 of the British/Irish version of Streaming Speech) shows an example of contemporary practice:

The words 'that' 'way' and 'well' are in upper-case letters, showing that they are prominent, the other words are non-prominent. There is a falling (proclaiming) tone which starts on 'well' and continues over the last three words 'on the course'. The double-slash symbols denote a tone-unit boundary. Key and termination choices are mid; if they were low or high, the prominent syllables would be preceded by up or down arrows.

American English

DI is useful for transcription of all accents of English - an example of American English is given below.


Transcribers are trained through a process of standardisation with recordings and with other transcribers. There is a simple notation to learn: but the main task of is learning to relate the categories of DI to the particular characteristics of the recordings being transcribed. Some of these issues are mentioned in the Applications area of SPARC. If you are interested in learning to become a transcriber, contact Richard Cauldwell.

Key Publications

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

Brazil, D.
1985. The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. [1st Edition]. Discourse Analysis Monograph No. 8. Birmingham: English Language Research, The University of Birmingham

Bradford, B.
1988. Intonation in Context: Intonation Practice for Upper-intermediate and Advanced Learners of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hewings, M.
1993. Pronunciation Tasks. A Course for Pre-intermediate Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/

Brazil, D.
1994. Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
1997. The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. [2nd Edition] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hewings, M. & Goldstein, S.
1998. Pronunciation Plus. Practice through Interaction. [North American English]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cauldwell, R.
2002. Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English. British/Irish version. Birmingham: speechinaction.
2005. Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English. American/Canadian version. Birmingham: speechinaction.