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Categories and gradience in intonation

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Intonation, or the melody of speech, plays a central role in human communication, since it can provide immediate cues to the start of a new word or phrase in the speech stream, and to the meaning of utterances. As a consequence, when the intonation is wrong, communication often breaks down. However, intonation is notoriously difficult to analyse because of its continuous nature, its multiple functions, and its interaction with other parts of the grammar. As a consequence, it remains unclear how exactly it is realised, what units are involved, how it contributes to speech comprehension, and how it is processed in the brain.

The Autosegmental-Metrical (AM) framework for intonational analysis (Pierrehumbert 1980, Gussenhoven 1984, 2004, Ladd 1996, Jun 2005) offers discrete, economical and insightful formalisations of intonation systems, which promise to provide the key to understanding cross-linguistic, -dialectal and -stylistic intonational variation, which in turn will open up new avenues for researching cognitive and neural aspects of intonation processing. Although AM is now firmly established as the predominant theoretical framework in the field, a major issue for the theory is that there is little evidence to support the central tenet that underpins it: the assumption that intonation contours can be analysed in terms of a limited number of discrete phonological categories which can be realised in gradiently varying ways at a phonetic level. The problem is that functional categories and gradient variation are closely intertwined in intonation, since both can be used to signal linguistic as well as paralinguistic variation in meaning (e.g. Crystal 1969, Bolinger 1970).

In this talk, I will present the ESRC -funded project Categories and gradience in intonation: Evidence from linguistics and neurobiology (RES-061-25-0347; January 2009 – October 2011; collaborators Francis Nolan, Linguistics & Emmanuel Stamatakis, Anaesthesia; RA Toby Hudson). Its two main objectives are (1) to use a combination of empirical paradigms to test AM’s central tenet, and (2) to pin down the neural architecture that supports the processing of the intonational information at issue. First, I will illustrate how intonational forms can be usefully analysed in terms of categories, but also that categorisation is problematic. Then I will discuss various techniques which have been successfully applied to investigate phonological category membership in related areas. Finally, I will outline a series of speech production and perception experiments, as well as two fMRI experiments, which will identify (1) the perceptual effects of certain acoustic changes in intonation patterns, and (2) the brain systems that are involved in processing lower-level sound-based information, and higher-level, more abstract aspects of intonation. Taken together, they will not only test a theory on which virtually all current research in intonation hinges, but also provide the first neurobiological evidence of a refined, linguistically informed model of the neural underpinnings of intonation, offering a template for future studies in this area.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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