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Prosodic parsing: The role of prosody in sentence comprehension

Amy Jean Schafer, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This work presents an investigation of how prosodic information is used in natural language processing and how prosody should be incorporated into models of sentence comprehension. It is argued that the processing system builds a prosodic representation in the early stages of processing, and is guided by this prosodic representation through multiple stages of analysis. Specifically, the results of four sentence comprehension experiments demonstrate that prosodic phrasing influences syntactic attachment decisions, focus interpretation, and the availability of contextual information in the resolution of lexical ambiguity. Two explicit hypotheses of how prosodic structure is used in processing are proposed to account for these effects: one which accounts for effects of phonological phrasing on syntactic processing decisions and a second which accounts for effects of intonational phrasing on semantic/pragmatic interpretation. Three sources of evidence are provided in support of the central claim that the processor must build and use a prosodic representation from the early stages of processing. First, an experiment on the resolution of prepositional phrase attachment ambiguity demonstrates that syntactic attachment decisions are influenced by the overall pattern of phonological phrasing in utterance, and not simply by prosodic boundaries located at the point of syntactic ambiguity. Thus, the effects of a single kind of prosodic element, at a single level in the prosodic hierarchy, must be accounted for with respect to the larger prosodic structure. A second experiment shows that the interpretation of focus is dependent on both the pattern of pitch accents in the utterance and the pattern of prosodic phrasing, establishing that different kinds of prosodic elements in the prosodic structure are used jointly in processing decisions. Two additional experiments, one on the interpretation of context-sensitive adjectives and a second on the resolution of within-category lexical ambiguity, demonstrate that phonologically distinct levels of prosodic phrasing have separable effects on language processing. Taken together, the four experiments suggest that prosody has a much broader role in sentence comprehension than previously recognized, and that models of sentence processing should be modified to incorporate prosodic structure.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Psychology|Experiments|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Schafer, Amy Jean, "Prosodic parsing: The role of prosody in sentence comprehension" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809396.