Talk – Jennifer Cole

Our next speaker will be Jennifer Cole (LING), presenting on: “Conventionalization in the prosodic encoding of information structure: An information-theoretic approach”.

Early accounts of phrasal prominence [Bolinger 1972; Chafe 1974; Chomsky & Halle 1968; Gussenhoven 1983; Ladd 1980] point to informational criteria (related to focus and discourse-givenness) and structural criteria (related to position in the prosodic phrase) as determining which word(s) within a prosodic phrase are assigned phrasal prominence. Yet empirical evidence from recent studies calls for reconsideration of analyses that directly and deterministically link information structure (IS) meaning with phrasal prominence and/or pitch accent. The argument against traditional accounts of the prosodic encoding of IS meaning rests on findings from experiments on English, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Berber that collectively show: (1) the relationship between IS categories and phonological pitch accents is not deterministic—e.g., in English and German, accent may occur on given as well as new words, and many accent types (e.g, L*, H*, L+H*) are attested for each information structure condition. (2) There is systematic acoustic prosodic enhancement associated with gradations in informativity across IS categories—e.g., focused and/or new words are acoustically enhanced relative to given words—in languages with typologically diverse prosodic systems. (3) The gradient effect of informativity on acoustic prosodic enhancement can be greater for phrase-final (nuclear) prominence compared to non-final prominences, an asymmetry that is reflected in an overall structural bias that privileges the phrase-final position in perceptual processing of phrasal prominence.
These findings are hard to reconcile in traditional accounts that directly and deterministically link prosodic phonological structures with IS meaning. I argue for an alternative approach, adopting an information-theoretic framework where predictability and conventionalization interact to shape systematic variation in prosodic expression and its association with IS meaning. The predictability of a word and its referent influences linguistic expression at the lexical, syntactic, phonological and phonetic levels [e.g., Aylett & Turk 2004; Levy & Jaeger 2007], to varying degrees across languages. Traditional IS distinctions, re-cast in in terms of predictability, influence a speaker’s choice of prosodic expression at the phonological and phonetic levels, and variation in the prosodic expression of predictability is potentially offset by expression via lexical or syntactic choices. The conventionalized pairing of acoustic prosodic marking and IS meaning varies across IS categories and across languages. For instance, in English, a phonological pitch accent may come to function as a pragmatic morpheme due to the highly conventionalized pairing of acoustic prosodic enhancement (e.g., a sharply rising pitch excursion) with a salient information status distinction (e.g., corrective focus), while less conventionalized associations result in probabilistic and phonetically gradient patterns in speech production. In other words, the prosodic encoding of information structure is phonological only in the most conventionalized cases. This information-theoretic account offers insight into observed structural and pragmatic biases in the perceptual processing of prosody, and reconciles the apparent conflict between recent experimental findings in diverse languages and traditional views of the prosody-IS relationship.

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