B-ToBI: basic tones

The primary contributions of B-ToBI are the annotation system and descriptive model of the basic tones used in Bengali intonation. B-ToBI also describes the f-marked tones used to convey focus, and provides an annotation scheme for the text of utterances as well.

The B-ToBI model proposes a system of tones, some of which are aligned to "stressed" or "accented" syllables and some of which are aligned with the right edges of phrases. Each of these types of tones and phrases is described below, along with tune-meaning mappings and phonological characteristics.

Stress or accent

"Stress" and "accent" are messy terms, and many people use them interchangeably (e.g. "stressed syllable" = "accented syllable") while others have precise definitions for each ("a lexically accented syllable in languages like English can bear stress and attract a pitch accent"). The terms are particularly controversial when it comes to Bengali phonology. Some linguists claim Bengali has fixed initial stress, others say it's predictable but weight-sensitive, while yet others claim there is no stress at all. For the purposes of intonation, Bengali words can be seen as stressed on the first syllable, in that the first syllable is the only one that can attract a pitch accent. A pitch accent is simply a tone that highlights the most prominent syllable of a word.

In Bengali, a stressed syllable can bear a low pitch accent (L*), high pitch accent (H*), rising pitch accent (L*+H), or no pitch accent at all. Note that this means not all "stressed" or "accented" syllables have a pitch accent.

Adding in "focus" complicates things a bit further.

Prosodic units or phrases

Bengali has three types of phrases relevant to intonation. These phrases or "prosodic units" are Accentual Phrases (AP), Intermediate Phrases (ip), and Intonational Phrases (IP). Each utterance in Bengali is made up of one or more IPs, each of which is made up of one of more ips, each of which is made up of one or more APs, each of which is made up of one or more words. Each of these is described below, from the smallest phrase (AP) to the largest (IP).

Prenuclear accentual phrase (AP)

Almost every content word is its own Accentual Phrase (AP), a unit marked by two tones: a pitch accent (low L* or high H*) and an AP boundary tone (high Ha or low La). One pitch accent and one AP boundary tone make up a prenuclear AP, which come in two types: rising (L*...Ha) and falling (H*...La).

Rising AP (L*...Ha)

The rising AP (L*...Ha) is by far the most commonly seen pattern for prenuclear APs in formal registers of Bengali. Example [Na19] below shows low pitch on the first syllable and high pitch at the end of each of the first two words, mOnoara 'Monoara' (a name) and make 'mother-ACC'.


[Na19] mOnoara make nie elo. 'Monoara brought (her) mother.'

Falling AP (H*...La)

The falling AP (H*...La) is less common in formal registers, but still observed in examples like [By37] below. (Note that the extreme changes in the pitch contour on gelen are due to pitch tracking error during creaky voice.)


[By37] mirar nana mara gelen. 'Mira's grandfather passed away.'

It is more common in less formal registers, especially when conveying sarcasm or surprise, the second of which is found in the unscripted speech of example [ByS134].


[ByS134] EkTa pukure mone HOY cheleTa pore gElo. '[It's] in a pond [that] it seems the boy fell.'


The two tones in an AP cannot be both H or both L, due to the Obligatory Contour Principle (OCP). This means that every prenuclear AP will show a rise or fall, even if the contour is subtle.

Some APs are composed of multiple words. This is especially common in faster speech rates, when function words group together with nearby content words, or when two content words group together into a tight grammatical unit. For example, the speaker in [A18] puts the whole postpositional phrase into one rising AP, combining the noun complement dhakka '(a) shove' with its deverbalized postpositional head die 'with/given'.


[A18] ora dhakka die dOrja khullo. 'They opened the door with a shove.'

AP downtrend

Note that the H tone of each AP (H* or Ha) is lower than its preceding H tone. This is called AP downtrend.


[Fa50] rumu nepaler ranir malider namgulo mone rakhte pare ni. 'Rumu couldn't remember the names of the gardeners of the queen of Nepal.'

AP downtrend can only be violated in three instances: (1) the H tone of a longer word is higher than the H tone of a preceding shorter word, as in malider 'of the gardeners' vs. ranir 'of the queen' in [Fa50], (2) the H tone of a content word is higher than the H tone of a preceding function word as in mirar 'of Mira' vs. karon 'because' in [Fa37], or (3) the H tone is conveying focus.


[Fa37] ...karon mirar nana mara gelen. '...because Mira's grandfather passed away.'

Nuclear accentual phrase (AP)

After a sequence of prenuclear APs comes the nuclear AP, which is composed of only a pitch accent, and no AP boundary tone. The three nuclear pitch accents are low (L*), high (H*), and rising (L*+H). This is the final AP within the sequence (=intermediate phrase).

Low pitch accent (L*)

The low pitch accent (L*) can be considered the default. It is often not all that "low", but it is lower than a H* would be in this position.


[Tu01] mOnoara romilake nie elo. 'Monoara brought Romila.'

High pitch accent (H*)

The high pitch accent (H*) is also fairly common. As the nuclear AP is typically the head of the verb phrase, the use of nuclear H* can often signal that the verb head is important or unexpected, but not exactly under "focus".

In example [Ba51], the speaker seems to convey that the conjunct verb ভুলে গেলেন bhule gêlen 'forgot' is unexpected or noteworthy. As seen in this example, a nuclear H* typically cooccurs with a preceding falling AP, in accordance with the OCP.


[Ba51] Sey namgulo bhule gElen. '(He/she/they) forgot those (aforementioned) names.'

Rising pitch accent (L*+H)

The rising pitch accent (L*+H) is a third option. Like H*, it conveys a level of emphasis, but not to the level of "focus".

The speaker in [Re57] uses the rising pitch accent at the end of each of the two sentences, presumably highlighting that it might not have been obvious that the mirrors are মুনিমার munimar 'Munima's', and that the Aunty পছন্দ করেন না pôchondo kôren na 'does not like' the mirrors / this fact.


[Re57] ey aYnagulo munimar. mami kintu pOchondo kOren na. 'These mirrors are Munima's. (Be aware that) Aunty doesn't like (that fact/them).'

In unscripted example [FaS158], the speaker uses the rising pitch accent (L*+H) presumably to indicate that the sudden appearance of a বিরাট হরিণ biraT Horin 'huge deer' might be unexpected.


[FaS158] ...ber Hoe eSlo EkTa biraT Horin. '...(there) came out a huge deer.'

Intermediate phrase (ip)

The intermediate phrase (ip, note the lack of capitalization here) is a group of one or more APs, often (but not always) part of a tight syntactic unit, e.g. a topic, subject, or postpositional phrase. It is marked on its right edge by lengthening of the final syllable, an optional pause, the interruption of AP downtrend, and one of two boundary tones: high (H-) and low (L-).

Of these, the high ip boundary tone (H-) is by far the more commonly used.


[Sh35] amar naraYongOnje jaWa Holo na. 'I didn't get to go to Narayanganj.'

Notice that the high ip boundary tone (H-) differs from a high AP boundary tone (Ha) in terms of height (H- is higher than Ha), contour (H- has a final elbow while Ha does not), and length (the final syllable is lengthened when it bears H-, but not when it bears Ha).

Concurrent boundary tone overriding

Recall that the last AP in the ip does not have an AP boundary tone. Instead, it has an ip boundary tone. In fact, the B-ToBI model posits an AP boundary tone for this final AP, but the model assumes this tone is overridden by the presence of an ip boundary tone in the same position. This phenomenon is known as concurrent boundary tone overriding, and it is also seen in Hindi, Tamil, and Korean. It differs from the boundary tone "stacking" pattern seen in American English, German, and Japanese.

Intonation phrase (IP)

The intonation phrase (IP) is the largest unit that is marked by intonation. Whole sentences can be a single IP, but smaller chunks (even a single word) can serve as an IP as well. The IP is marked on its right edge by lengthening of the final syllable, an optional pause, and one of five boundary tones: low (L%), high (H%), low rising (LH%), high falling (HL%), or high dipping (HLH%).

Like the ip boundary tone, the IP boundary tone overrides other tones aiming for the same location. That means that in IP-final position, both the ip boundary tone and AP boundary tone are overridden, leaving only the IP boundary tone.

Low IP boundary tone (L%)

The low IP boundary tone (L%) can be seen as a default, as it is the most frequent IP boundary tone, and it is seen in the widest range of constructions. These include declaratives (as in [Fa24]), direct imperatives, exclamations, and "plain" wh-questions.


[Fa24] mOnoara lina mamike nie elo. 'Monoara brought Aunt Lina.'

High IP boundary tone (H%)

The high IP boundary tone (H%) is also common, but only within a narrower range of constructions. These include requests (which can be interpreted as indirect imperatives), confirmation questions (typically with sentence particle na in second or final position as in [Fa06], or naki in second position), echo wh-questions, and the first of two conjoined clauses.


[Fa06] mOnoara romilake nie elo na? 'Didn't Monoara bring Romila?'

Falling IP boundary tone (HL%)

The falling IP boundary tone (HL%) is primarily seen in two constructions. These include yes/no questions and topicalized phrases (as in [FaS90]). Despite its name, note that this contour involves rising pitch until the final syllable, and the final sharp fall is concentrated within that final syllable.


[FaS90] ey dike or kukurTa... '(And) over here his dog...'

Rising IP boundary tone (LH%)

The rising IP boundary tone (LH%) is similar to the L-H% tone of American English ToBI in shape and use. It involves a steady drop in pitch until the final syllable, where a sharp upturn is seen. The tone conveys "polite" or "softened" wh-questions (as in [SB47] below), as well as continuation (i.e. the speaker has more to say).


[SB47] rumu nepaler ranir malider ki jiniS mone rakhte pare ni? 'What thing could Rumu not remember of the gardeners of the queen of Nepal?'

Dipping IP boundary tone (HLH%)

Lastly, the dipping IP boundary tone (HLH%) involves a steady rise in pitch until the second-to-last syllable, in which there is a drop in pitch, followed by a rise in the final syllable. In some instances, the fall and final rise are both realized in the final syllable. The meaning conveyed is largely equivalent to the "continuation" use of LH%.


[Fa35] jeHetu mirar nana mara gelen... 'Because Mira's grandfather passed away...'