Posted by Grant Richardson, 25th May, 2015
Apparently, in Cantonese, the tone of the phrase for “Really?” drops at the end, and the question normally makes the speaker sound as if they are challenging the other’s story or statement. Therefore, it is normally not as polite as it is in English.
In English, when the tone of “Really?” starts high and falls over “Rea” and then jumps back to a high tone on “lly?”, it normally does not give any impolite impression. In fact, it shows that the speaker has a genuine interest or surprise in what the other has said. Or, it could simply mean that the speaker has paid attention to what the other person has said and would like them to encourage continue.
On the other hand, in English, if the tone starts low with “Rea”, and then jumps to a high tone on “lly?” (Without dipping), then it can show that the speaker is a bit skeptical about (cautious to believe) what the other has said. This may give a similar impression to the phrase in Cantonese. (see first video below)
In English, when the tone starts high with “Rea”, and then ends low with “lly?”, it can show that the speaker thinks that what the other has said might be very useful to him/her (the speaker). (see second video below)
Here are some famous “Really?”s: