DS-2006-07: Rises and Falls. Studies in the Semantics and Pragmatics of Intonation

DS-2006-07: Nilsenova, Marie (2006) Rises and Falls. Studies in the Semantics and Pragmatics of Intonation. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam.

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This dissertation explores the meaning and use of rising intonation in English
and French. The central theme was provided by the generally accepted claim
that there exists a typical question melody in American English. The term
`question' (as opposed to `interrogative'), however, was found to be
problematic because speakers tend to interpret it in various ways: at the two
extremes, as 'response seeking utterances' including imperatives and
requests for acknowledgment or, for other speakers, only as sentences with
interrogative markers. This finding undermines existing conclusions
regarding the interpretation of certain contours as 'questions'. Here, a
pragmatic definition of questioning utterances was employed instead, based
on the typical function of an interrogative, namely seeking an evaluative
response. Some criteria for identifying evaluative response-seeking
utterances in a conversation were introduced. In an experiment, it was found
that evaluative response-seeking declaratives can be identified by subjects
even outside of context. Furthermore, there is a set of contours that
facilitates the interpretation (though their presence is neither sufficient nor
necessary). These contours can best be captured with Gunlogson's definition
of 'final rise' and were here described with broad ToBI alphabet as containing
the nuclear tunes L*H-H%, H*H-H% and L*L-H%. It was found that these three
contours are a stronger predictor of the evaluative-response seeking
interpretation than other properties of the utterance (e.g., the presence of a
hetero-cognitive predicate, which is otherwise linked to this particular
interpretation as well). At least in this sense, the meaning of intonation is
thus in no sense "weaker" than the meaning of lexical items.

Next, rising and falling polar interrogatives in American English were
explored in their context of use. According to the existing studies, falling
interrogatives appear to be biased towards a positive response in some
contexts and towards a negative one in others. This discrepancy can be
captured by the decision-theoretic approach to the use of polar
interrogatives, which assumes that there are two types of bias: one, where the
speaker wishes for the proposition of the same polarity to be true, and
another, where she expects the proposition with the opposite polarity to hold
(in both cases, receiving an affirmative answer results in a higher utility than
receiving a negative one). The decision-theoretic description, however,
cannot account for all the data; this observation was further confirmed in a
perceptual categorization task designed to test the association between
nuclear tunes and types of bias.
In the task, it was also found that final rises are frequently associated with
speaker's wish for the affirmative answer to hold (desired state bias), while
the low fall is linked to speaker's informational bias towards the negative
The empirical observations regarding the use of rising intonation on
declaratives and interrogatives were tied to an update semantic formalization,
exploiting the supposition that the primary linguistic interpretation of final
rises is uncertainty (rather than questioning). In terms of the universal
biological codes for pitch interpretation, their linguistic and paralinguistic
adaptation was thus treated uniformly and the frequent questioning effect of
rising declaratives in context was derived from the maxims of rational
conversation. The proposal does away with the hybrid category of question/
rising declaratives and simply treats them as declarative sentences containing
an operator of epistemic uncertainty (the final rise). It can also account for
the use of rising utterances, both declarative and interrogative, in contexts
which were problematic for existing theories, and for the association of rising
utterances in general with politeness.

Finally, some preliminary findings regarding the use of final rises in French
were reported. In two corpus studies, a significant link was found between
final rises (expressed with the help of the INTSINT alphabet) and polar
questions, as well as final rises and discourse topic openings. While the
association of rises with topic openings was stronger than the association
with questions (suggesting the operation of the Effort Code), there appeared
to be no noticeable tendency to use final rises with topic-opening questions.
It was concluded that a more fine-grained system for intonation transcription
is needed to explore the issue in detail.


Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Report Nr: DS-2006-07
Series Name: ILLC Dissertation (DS) Series
Year: 2006
Subjects: Logic
Depositing User: Dr Marco Vervoort
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/2054

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