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Towards a compositional interpretation of English statement and question intonation

Christine Bartels, University of Massachusetts Amherst


English sentence prosody provides cues to both focus structure and speaker attitude. Taking the phonological model of intonation developed by Pierrehumbert (1980 et seq.) as a point of departure, this dissertation aims to contribute to a compositional interpretation of English pitch contours by (1) offering a comprehensive survey of contours found in simple statements and questions, functionally defined, and (2) investigating what attitudinal features determine choice of phrasal tones in these utterance types. It is proposed that the phrasal tone L- (as found in "declarative intonation") is a tonal morpheme representing the interactive feature 'assertiveness'. The boundary tone H% represents a feature of concessive 'continuation dependence'. (Their phonological counterparts, H- and L%, are not inherently meaningful on the present account.) More specific connotations induced by these tones, their combination, or their absence are analyzed as context-dependent pragmatic inferences derived from their basic meanings. It is argued that the cognitive attitude 'assertiveness' cued by L- must encompass not only the speaker's own commitment to the propositional content of his utterance and an impositive instruction for addressees to change their private beliefs accordingly, but also, crucially, an impositive instruction for addressees to commit themselves publicly to the asserted proposition in turn, thus adding to the shared conversational record. Whereas in statements it is (generally) the surface proposition that is being asserted in this sense, in questions bearing L- it is a salient speaker-presupposed proposition derivable by the addressee. It is shown that the interactive interpretation of L- and H% is compatible with, and in principle predictive of, the distribution of falling and rising contours in alternative questions, yes-no questions, and wh-questions. For instance, given certain assumptions about the semantic properties of narrowly focused wh-expressions, the tonal contrast between echo questions and 'reference questions' can be seen to correspond to a contrast in speaker-intended development of the conversational record. The account is also extended to non-interrogative questions, such as the rising declaratives prevalent in some dialects of English, and to so-called "indirect speech acts" in which intonation may support either surface or ulterior force, guided in part by politeness strategies.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Bartels, Christine, "Towards a compositional interpretation of English statement and question intonation" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9721430.