Do All Languages Put A Rising Inflection At The End Of Questions?

I need a very cunning linguist to answer this.

Do all languages use a rising inflection at the end of the sentence to indicate that a question is being asked? Could this method have been invented independently in ALL spoken languages?

No. Tonal languages don’t do this because it would change the meaning of the word.

In parts of Pennsylvania, all questions have a dropping inflection at the end. :slight_smile:

For example, Mandarin, which has 5 tones for each character, and each has a distinct and separate meaning.

In Chinese, they use an interrogative particle ma at the end of a question. It has none of the four tones, in other words it has a flat or neutral tone. White Lightning, check a Chinese reference and you will see that most syllables have one of the four tones. The non-tone, the neutral, does not occur for most syllables. In Pinyin there are four accent marks to indicate the tones. The neutral one is unmarked. For example, Ma is one syllable that occurs in all four tones plus the neutral.

Ma¯ (high level) means ‘mother’.
(high rising) means ‘hemp’ (also ‘numb’).
Ma~ (low rising) means ‘horse’.*
(high falling) means ‘scold; curse, swear’.
Ma with no tone is the interrogative.

So — Did mother scold the numb horse?
Ma¯ mà má ma~ ma :slight_smile:

*The diacritic for the third tone is supposed to be a breve, not a tilde, but the charater set doesn’t support it.

Jomo Mojo, is there a wav file or something where those can be heard?

I swear there was a dictionary here whicjh would pronuonce the words but now I cannot find it. maybe you’ll have better luck
You can also try

Strictly speaking that’s true about Mandarin, but the rising inflection for a question- even with the dropping of “ma” or a “choice” verb- is coming into use. Threw me off the first time I had questions like that thrown my way… “But, but, the teacher said…”

Cantonese sometimes does the opposite of what we’ve come to expect by having a FALLING inflection indicate a question, but only on a few particles.

There was also some additional discussion of the question in the thread Do all languages rise in tone at the end of a question?

In parts of the midwest, declarative statements have that rising inflection at the end. :slight_smile:

Jomo: A relatively recent (to me, at least) innovation in Beijing Chinese is placing the ma before the end of the question. I’m still not used to Ni ma hao? because I learned it the other way around!

Dunno about the wav files on ma, but thing of it this way… the tonal forms sound sound something like a drawn-out maaah with a hard A. The interrogative sounds like a short, clipped, muh.

??? Anyone confirm this? I’ve never heard this before.

I suppose the thing that confuses me is when you say “high rising”, for instance, how high and how rising? In other words, do you have to have a feel for the pitch range of the person who’s speaking? Or does everybody do high as say 440 v/s and then rise to 880 v/s?

Sorry, that was I, and not Edlyn, who posted the above.

Not even English speakers raise inflection at the end of a question.


When offering a choice between two things - "Would you like coffee (here is inflection), or tea (here a drop)? This is different from a situation asking if someone wants either, not one or the other.

Asking for location:

“Where do you live?” That can be asked either with or without inflection.

Japanese, so many questions are phrased as statements, inflection is often not necessary.

English - british english - doesn’t go up.

However in Australia it does. In fact while backpacking I found it often impossible to get help/info from people because their ears didn’t pick up the fact I was asking a question as my voice didn’t go up. After some time living there, I unconsciously started to go up at the ends of sentences, and now I often still do (undeliberately).

Much to the amusement of friends and family back in the UK, who continually take the piss out of my “Aussie” accent. However to Australian friends, I still sound more british than the Queen.

The book “The Story of English” says that in some circles (they mention surfers), most or all sentences in Australian have a rising tone at the end. From what I have seen, this is also common among the LA “Valley Girls” accent. It’s damned irritating? Ya know?

I have no direct knowledge of Australian surfer-gesprach, but it seems to me what happens is that the tone rises with a sort of lack of confidence in the statement. This might be from seeking agreement with the statement or in seeking an answer to a stated question. If the speaker is a bit cautious about what they are saying, then they’ll possibly slow down and/or raise the tone toward the end of the statement.

whoa, man, I don’t know who told you this whopper. Okay, I don’t live in Beijing, but I’d like some verification of this one. My guess is that someone with not so fluent Mandarin didn’t hear correctly. This is simply is not in the realm of even a infrequent mistake that would find itself into the vernacular.

That said, China can be a surprising place, so if anyone has some hard facts I’d be interested. If you know mandarin, I distintly remember one village in Yunnan province that used buyou instead of meiyou. The only place I’ve ever heard this, and I just stood out like a sore thumb.

Mandarin varies. The majority of time when using ma to form a question, it is in the neutral tone. However, it is not uncommon for a rising tone. IANALinguist, but my gut feel is that as a rising tone it is less of a question and more of an order.

There are also many other common ways to make a question in Mandarin (and the dialects tend to follow this pattern). For example, do you or do you not want to go (ni yao bu yao qu)? That question would not have a rising inflection to indicate a question.
So, for the OP, while you can find not uncommon instances of a rising inflection, it certainly is not the most common method for asking a question in Chinese.

In the US the rising tone at the end in declarative sentences seems to be quite common among young people and more common in women than in men. I have heard it called “upspeak” and it absolutely, positively drives me nuts, especially when done by middle aged people who do not realize they sound like a stupid teenager. Arghhhh!