Intonational Meaning + Variation

NSF-supported experimental research exploring the relationship between form and meaning in English intonation

This int2 project is exploring details of how intonational forms and semantic/pragmatic meanings map onto one another.

Below is the abstract from the NSF grant:

Exploring Variation in English Intonational Acoustic Phonetics from Grammatical Perspectives

Spoken language consists of multiple streams of information – including a segmental stream (for example, the consonants and vowels that make up words, suffixes, and prefixes) and a suprasegmental stream (such as the pitch, amplitude, and timing that define stress and cadence) which is often called “prosody”. All speakers (consciously or not) know prosody can be used to communicate meaning – a single sequence of words can be pronounced many ways, often with importantly distinct meanings. Despite this, most formal and computational linguistic investigations into meaning have primarily dealt with meanings encoded by the segmental stream (in words, suffixes, and prefixes). This project addresses this issue by exploring questions of how prosody and meaning relate. For example, what sorts of prosodic changes map onto changes in meaning? And what sorts of meanings? To explore these questions, the research team makes use of contemporary empirical methodologies, analytic tools, and formal theories, and particular attention is paid to intonational aspects of prosody.

The project encompasses three sets of experimental tasks of speech production and speech perception. Each of these sets of tasks corresponds to a different domain of semantic/pragmatic meanings: Common Ground management, Information Structure signalling, and scope ambiguity resolution. Different semantic/pragmatic contexts correspond to different experimental conditions, and these contexts are presented to participants as visual, comic strip-like, stimuli. These experiments measure prosodic characteristics of speech (e.g., pitch movements, coded with a recently developed annotation system called PoLaR) and/or reactions to speech (e.g., acceptability ratings). These data are then subjected to quantitative analysis as well as to formal linguistic models to uncover how different meaning-based conditions and different prosodic patterns are related. This work has important implications for improving human-computer interactions that are mediated by natural language, as well as for deepening understanding of various speech pathologies.

This research will be investigated through a series of experiments, following a general pattern laid out in the flowchart below:

A flowchart laying out the paradigm for expreimental research on intonational meaning

We envision three experimental sets, briefly named below:

  • Experiment Set 1: Common Ground Management and Intonational Meaning
  • Experiment Set 2: Information Structure and Phonemic Inventory of Mainstream U.S. English
  • Experiment Set 3: Conventionalized Intonational Meaning and Scope Ambiguity

Supplementing this, we begin by applying the analytical methods we will use to a dataset previously collected by Rett & Sturman (2021) to explore the prosody of exclamative utterances in English.

some work in this project

  1. Ahn, Byron, Nanette Veilleux, Beth Sturman, Alejna Brugos, Sunwoo Jeong & Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel. 2022, March. How Meaningful These Intonational Contours Are! Poster presented at 35th Annual Conference on Human Sentence Processing (formerly the ‘CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing’). University of California, Santa Cruz.
  2. Ahn, Byron, Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel & Nanette Veilleux. 2016. Evidence and Intonational Contours: An Experimental Approach to Meaning in Intonation. Proceedings of the Sixteenth Australasian International Conference on Speech Science and Technology 189–192.