Michael Wagner gave a colloquium talk at Northwestern University last week, presenting collaborative work with McGill PhD alum Dan Goodhue (University of Maryland). The title and abstract are below.
Toward a Bestiary of the Intonational Tunes of English
What is the inventory of tunes of North American English? What do particular tunes contribute to the pragmatic and semantic import of an utterance? How reliably are certain conversational goals and intentions associated with the use of particular tunes? While English intonation is well-studied, the answers to these questions still remain preliminary. We present the results of scripted experiments that complement existing knowledge by providing some data on what tunes speakers use to accomplish particular conversational goals, and how likely particular choices are. This research complements studies of the meaning and form of individual contours, which often do not explore alternative prosodic and other means to achieve a certain conversational goal; and it complements more exploratory research based on speech corpora, which offer a rich field for exploring which contours are generally out there, but are limited in that the true intentions of the speaker are often underdetermined by the context.
Our studies focus on three types of conversational goals, the goal to contradict (‘Intended Contradiction’), the goal to imply something indirectly (‘Intended Implication’), or to express incredulity (‘Intended Incredulity’). We looked at these three intents since their expression has been linked in the prior literature with the use of three particular rising contours: the Contradiction Contour (Liberman & Sag, 1974; Ladd, 1980; Ward & Hirschberg, 1985; Goodhue & Wagner 2018), the Rise-Fall-rise Contour (Ward & Hirschberg, 1985; Constant, 2012; Wagner, 2012), and the incredulity contour (Hirschberg & Ward, 1992). The results show a large extent of consistency in which strategies speaker choose to enact certain intentions, but also interesting variation. Especially the act of contradicting offers a rich set of intonational choices, and the observed data raises several challenges to our current understanding of how intonation works.