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April 30, 2024

The intonation contour of a list

We all know when someone is listing something in a speech, but what is it about the intonation that tells us a list is happening? I had always thought there was a particular intonation contour associated with lists. Some researchers of intonation have argued this as well, suggesting there are particular intonation contours for particular lists:

They are likely to have one of the following patterns, depending on whether they are complete or incomplete:
(i) ́ ́ ́ `
(ii) ` ` ́ `
(iii) ` ` ` `
(i) there are hundreds of RÚSSian // CÚBan // and East German [SPÈCialists] and adVÌSors //
(ii) the horses were NÈIGHing; the oxen were BÈLlowing; the cows were LÓWing; and the pigs were GRÙNTing (Schubiger 1958: 72)
(iii) and they're about to die // M ̄Utilated // and B ̄URNED // and HÙRT [...]

(iv) ́ ́ ́ ́ ́
(v) ` ` ` ` ` (Schubiger 1958: 72f.)
(iv) if you ask people to speak about their LÁWyers // or their WÁSHer repairman // or their CÁR mechanic
(v) it's like FL ̄Uoride // it's like [C ̄APital] PÙnNishment // it's ̄ONE"
(Couper-Kuhlen 1986: 150)

A complete list is one that includes all members of a relevant category, and an incomplete list is one that does not. If you are making a list and you find yourself starting it with "for example" or ending it with "and so on," it is an incomplete list.

Margaret Selting argues that: is not so much the particular intonation contour that is constitutive of lists, but a variety of similar contours plus the repetition of the chosen contour for at least some or even all of the list items. (Selting, 2003: 51).

In other words, list prosody isn’t a particular contour, but involves repeating a contour over and over again. You can have more than one contour so long as it is repeated for some of the items in the list.

In the following examples, you'll hear two lists with different intonation contours.

For example, here is an example from Jhett, where a rising intonation contour is used. Notice that before he starts listing the items, he was already ending his sentences with a rising intonation (list in bold):

  • “Your favorite Gamecube game is Shadow the hedgehog?↑ Do you know how many good gamecube games there are?↑
    You could have said, Wind Waker↑, Metroid Prime↑, Super Smash Bros Melee↑, but your favorite is the one where Shadow the Hedgehog has a gun↑? I mean what is wrong↑ with you↓, I don't even...”

This is similar to the intonation contour (iv), where every list member has a high tone. In this example, we can hear that it's not just that there is a high tone, but that each list member ends with a rising intonation, unlike the example that Couper-Kuhlen gave for (iv).

In contrast, in this video from Bill Wurtz (at 4:38), we hear a falling intonation contour at the end of each list item:

  • “People started to study European science from books they bought from the Dutch↓. We’re talking geography↓, skeletons↓, physics↓, chemistry↓, astronomy↓, and maybe even electricity↓.

This one is similar to both complete (iii) and incomplete (v), since every member has a falling contour. It's not clear to me whether the list is complete or incomplete (there could possibly be more subjects that were studied?).

Though each intonation contour is different, it’s clear from the intonation alone that items are being listed. The choice of intonation contour appears to be reflected by the context of the wider sentence. In the first one, the speaker is confused and taken aback by the addressee’s favorite video game, and is embedding the list in the context of an accusatory question. In the second one, the speaker is making a non-emotional declarative sentence about what Japanese people at the time were studying, and the sentence ends in a falling contour.


  1. In contrast, in this video from Bill Wurtz (at 4:38), we hear a falling intonation contour at the end of each list item:

    Those are semicola then – not commas.

    1. Oops, that was me being confused by the new comment interface.

    2. Hmm, I thought the convention was to use semicolons to separate list items where the list items themselves may contain commas. Is this a different phonological convention to mark rising versus falling intonation in list items?