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Pragmatics and Intonation

Summary and Keywords

Intonation impacts pragmatic meaning. A range of empirical evidence shows that the pragmatic functions of intonation are specifiable. The dimensions of meaning impacted by intonation include at-issue meanings (for example, what is asserted in an assertion), presuppositions, conversational implicatures, and conventional implicatures. Certain linguistic expressions (such as the English exclusive only) are dependent on intonation, and some of these dependencies impact at-issue meaning. Intonation can also trigger certain presuppositions, in particular a certain type of anaphoric presupposition associated with the discourse context. There is also a robust interaction between intonation and implicature. The intonational prominence associated with focus can trigger certain scalar, existence, and exhaustive conversational implicatures. Finally, certain intonational contours (for example, the rise-fall-rise contour) appear to define conventional implicatures.

Keywords: at-issue, focus, implicature, information structure, intonation, pragmatics, presupposition

1. Intonation and Pragmatic Meaning

Different pronunciations of the same sentence convey different meanings (Paul, 1888). These different pronunciations impact what the speaker asserts, what the speaker presupposes, and what the speaker suggests. For example, different pronunciations of the sentence I only serve Landry ramen can impact what is asserted. In a situation where the speaker serves Justice and Landry ramen, but serves nobody anything else, (1a) is true while (1b) is false. (The linguistic expression that carries the greatest intonational prominence is represented with large capital letters.) The phenomenon illustrated in (1) is generally referred to as focus sensitivity (Beaver & Clark, 2008) and is discussed in more detail below (Section 3).

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Different pronunciations can also affect the contexts in which a sentence can be used felicitously. Consider possible pairings of the question in (2) with the answers in (2a) and (2b). (2) and (2a) is a felicitous question-answer pair; the pair (2) and (2b) is not (# represents infelicity). Similarly, (3) and (3b) are a felicitious question-answer pair; (3) and (3a) are not.

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The different pronunciations in (1)–(3) involve the use of suprasegmental phonetic features such as fundamental frequency ( Pragmatics and Intonation F0, pitch), intensity, and duration to convey different types of meanings. This phenomenon is often referred to as intonation, “the use of suprasegmental phonetic features to convey … sentence-level pragmatic meanings in a linguistically structured way” (Ladd, 2008, p. 4) [emphasis in the original].

Intonation impacts different dimensions of sentence-level pragmatic meaning (Hirschberg & Ward, 1992). Sentence-level meanings are “meanings that apply to phrases or utterances as a whole” (Ladd, 2008, p. 6) (for example, conversational implicature). Are the pragmatic functions of intonation specifiable (Hirschberg & Ward, 1984)? This article surveys the relationship between intonation and pragmatic meaning and shows that intonation plays a significant role in conveying several types of meanings. These meanings include at-issue meanings (e.g., what is asserted in an assertion), presuppositions, conversational implicatures, and conventional implicatures. Section 2 briefly touches on the phonology of intonation and its description. Section 3 discusses the interaction between intonation and at-issue meaning; Section 4, the interaction between intonation and presupposition; and Section 5, the interaction between intonation and implicature.

2. Phonology

Intonation is linguistically structured. This section discusses some aspects of this structure. Features of intonation include distinct entities (such as low tones and high tones) and relations (such as stronger than and weaker than) (Ladd, 2008, p. 6). Intonation should be distinguished from prosody and stress. Prosody is a more general category than intonation; it encompasses intonation but also other phonetic features such as pauses, lengthening of segments, and loudness. Stress is a strength relation between syllables and, unlike intonation, is decided in the lexicon. (But see Potts, 2005a for lexical analyses of certain intonational effects on meaning and Schweitzer et al., 2015 for corpus evidence for lexicalized storage of intonation.) For example, the English noun convert is distinguished in pronunciation from the English verb convert by the placement of stress on the first or second syllable.

There is extensive variation across languages in the phonology of intonation. One approach to the description of intonation is to represent intonation as a string of tones (Pierrehumbert, 1980; Beckman & Pierrehumbert, 1986). The To(nes) and B(reak) I(ndices) (ToBI) system for American English is one example of this type of approach (Silverman et al., 1992; Beckman & Hirschberg, 1994; Beckman, Hirschberg, & Shattuck-Hufnagel, 2005). Related systems for transcribing intonation include G(erman)ToBI (Grice, Reyelt, Benzmüller, Mayer, & Batliner, 1996) and J(apanese)ToBI (Venditti, 1997), as well as other linguistic representations of intonation such as the IPO model (’t Hart & Collier, 1975) and the Tilt model (Taylor, 2000).

In ToBI, a string of H(igh) and L(ow) tones describes the shape of the fundamental frequency contour. There are three kinds of tones in this system: pitch accents, phrase accents, and boundary tones. Pitch accent is “a local feature of a pitch contour—usually but not invariably a pitch change, and often involving a local maximum or minimum” (Ladd, 1996, pp. 45–46). Phrase accents and boundary tones mark minor and major phrase boundaries, respectively.

Pitch accents are represented in ToBI as high or low tones (H*, L*) or combinations of tones (e.g., Pragmatics and Intonation L+H*), and are annotated with an asterisk to distinguish them from phrase accents and boundary tones. For example, H* indicates a high tone and comes out as a peak on an accented syllable. The bitonal Pragmatics and Intonation L+H* comes out as a complex pitch accent with a peak on an accented syllable immediately preceded by a sharp rise. Phrase accents are represented as H− or L−, boundary tones as H% or L%. The inventory of pitch accents in ToBI comprises H*, L*, Pragmatics and Intonation H+!H*, Pragmatics and Intonation L+H*, and Pragmatics and Intonation L*+H, where ! represents a downstep. (A downstep is a high tone that occurs in a compressed pitch range. It is triggered by an immediately preceding complex tone such as Pragmatics and Intonation L+H*.)

The ToBI system defines a set of possible intonational strings. Pitch accents are grouped together and followed by a phrase accent to make an intermediate phrase (for example, Pragmatics and Intonation L+H* L−). Intermediate phrases are grouped together and followed by a boundary tone to make an intonational phrase (e.g., the rise-fall-rise contour Pragmatics and Intonation L*+H L−H% discussed in Sections 4 and 5). Examples (4) and (5) illustrate how the ToBI annotation system works. The sentence I only serve Landry ramen can be pronounced as a single phrase, as in (4) with a high tone on both I and ramen. Alternatively, the subject I can be phrased separately from the rest of the sentence, as in (5). In (5), the sentence-medial intermediate phrase boundary is marked by a low phrase accent.

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Focus is an information structural property that a linguistic expression might have (such as being discourse new) which affects at-issue and not-at-issue meaning (Beaver & Clark, 2008). Different languages have different ways of marking focus. A standard assumption in the literature on intonational meaning is that, in English, focus is typically marked by a nuclear pitch accent (the last pitch accent in a phonological phrase; Ladd, 1996; Cohan, 2000) and represented in ToBI by an H* accent (Hedberg & Sosa, 2001; Hedberg, 2003). Other accents are possible for marking focus (for example, Pragmatics and Intonation L+H*). The intonational marking of focus is an area of ongoing research. In recent work, Calhoun (2006, 2010), proposes that information structure generally (and focus in particular) is signaled through the alignment of words with metrical prosodic structure.

3. At-issue Meaning

The expression at-issue describes “what is asserted in an assertion, asked in a question, demanded in a command, etc.” (Coppock & Beaver, 2014, p. 371) (for more on at-issueness see Roberts, Simons, Beaver, & Tonhauser, 2009; Simons, Tonhauser, Beaver, & Roberts, 2011). Presuppositions (Section 4) and implicatures (Section 5) are not-at-issue. At-issue meaning is typically described as that which directly addresses the current question under discussion (Roberts, 1996).

As discussed earlier, focus is an information structural property that a linguistic expression might have which affects at-issue and not-at-issue meaning. This notion of focus should be distinguished from psychoacoustic notions such as prominence and phonological notions such as phonological focus marking. Some of the inferences associated with the intonational marking of focus are “conventionalized but not literally part of the truth conditions” (Jacobson, 2014, p. 386). For example, as noted in the introduction, intonational prominence influences contextual felicity. I serve LANDRY ramen is a felicitous answer to the question Who do you serve ramen? but not to What do you serve Landry? The reverse is the case with the utterance I serve Landry RAMEN, with intonational prominence on ramen.

The interpretation of many linguistic expressions is dependent on intonation, and some of these dependencies impact at-issue meaning. Section 1 illustrated the phenomenon of focus sensitivity with the examples in (1), repeated here as (6). In (6), the English exclusive only displays a dependency on the placement of intonational prominence, and this dependency affects truth-conditions. There are situations in which (6a) is false but (6b) true (and vice versa).

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Counterparts to only in other languages are discussed in Beaver and Clark (2008) (see also Toosarvandani, 2010). Many different types of expressions are focus-sensitive. Beaver and Clark (2008, chap. 3) present a taxonomy.

To explain the interaction between only and intonational prominence illustrated in (6), Beaver and Clark (2008) propose that only has a lexically pragmatic meaning. They argue that only triggers the presupposition that the prejacent is the weakest viable answer to the current question under discussion and contributes the at-issue meaning that the prejacent is the strongest viable answer. (The prejacent of sentence that includes only is the result of removing only from the sentence. For example, the prejacent of I only love KIM is I love KIM.) The focus sensitivity of only results from the fact that its meaning makes direct reference to the current question under discussion. On the assumption that the focus marking of an utterance indicates the answer to a question, only, like other expressions that seem to be conventionally focus sensitive (such as the scalar additive even), marks the status of that answer.

Coppock and Beaver (2014) extend Beaver and Clark’s (2008) analysis to the entire class of English exclusive expressions (only, just, exclusively, merely, etc.). What unifies all of these expressions is that they concern an upper bound on the viable answers to the current question under discussion and signal that a lower bound on them is taken for granted. Kadmon and Sevi (2011) and Roberts (2011) critique Beaver and Clark’s (2008) proposal and argue that only is not lexically sensitive to focus.

4. Presupposition

Presupposition (Beaver & Geurts, 2014) is what is assumed as opposed to what is said (at-issue content) or implicated. For example, what is said by the speaker who utters (7) is that Landry realized a particular state of affairs (her having won), while that state of affairs is being presupposed.

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The verb realize in (7) is a presupposition trigger. A presupposition trigger is a linguistic expression that signals (or tends to signal) that a certain presupposition is being made. Realize is one of many factive predicates, a class of predicates that take a complement which is presupposed to be true. Other presupposition triggers include definite noun phrases (such as the King of France), change-of-state predicates (such as quit and stop), it-clefts (such as It was Kim who broke Sam’s phone), and additive particles such as again.

Focus has been claimed to trigger certain presuppositions. For example, Kratzer (1989, pp. 646–647) claims that (8) presupposes that Paula is registered at some place which is not Paris and that (9) presupposes that some person who is not Paula is registered in Paris.

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Geurts and van der Sandt (2004) propose a rule, the Background Presupposition Rule, which states that focus marking generates an existential presupposition. To illustrate, an utterance of the expression in (10), with intonational prominence on the proper name Kim, triggers the presupposition that someone broke Sam’s phone, just like the it-cleft in (11).

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There is empirical evidence against this proposal (for discussion, see Rooth, 1999; Büring, 2012a, which is drawn from here). For example, (10) can answer the questions in (12). Neither of these questions allow the proposition that someone broke Sam’s phone to be presupposed.

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Further, example (13), with nobody intonationally prominent, is predicted by the Background Presupposition Rule to be associated with the presupposition that someone broke Sam’s phone. But, if so, then (13) should be a contradiction. It is not.

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Section 5 discusses how the existential commitment often associated with intonational prominence might instead be better treated as a conversational implicature.

The intonational prominence associated with focus has also been claimed to trigger an anaphoric presupposition. Rooth (1985, 1992) proposes that focus marking makes salient a set of alternative propositions (a focal alternative set). (The overview of Rooth’s proposal here is a slight adaptation of overviews in Büring, 2012b; Roberts, 2015; and, especially, Simons, Beaver, Roberts, & Tonhauser, 2016.) These alternatives are generated by replacing the semantic interpretation of the focus marked constituent with a semantic object of the same type. Consider the example in (14a), with the proper name Landry focus-marked by intonational prominence. On the assumption that proper names denote entities, intonational prominence on Landry yields the alternative set in (14b), where the propositions vary with respect to which individual Pat serves ramen. (Small caps represent propositions.) Each proposition in the set in (14) is a focal alternative of the sentence uttered; the propositions vary with respect to who Pat serves ramen. In this way, focus marking serves to associate each sentence with a set of alternative propositions.

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Rooth (1992) claims that focus marking triggers the presupposition that the focal alternative set is salient in the context. For (14a), this presupposition would be satisfied if the current question under discussion is Who does Pat serve ramen?, on the assumption that this question denotes a set of propositions of the form {pat serves landry ramen, pat serves justice ramen, pat serves pat ramen, pat serves kim ramen, …}. This presupposition would not be satisfied if the current question under discussion was What does Pat serve Landry?, which would denote a set like {pat serves landry pancakes, pat serves landry soup, pat serves landry ramen}. Roberts (2015) proposes the focus pragmatic universal in (15) (adapted slightly).

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Certain complex intonational contours have been claimed to trigger a presupposition. For example, Wagner (2012) proposes that the rise-fall-rise ( Pragmatics and Intonation L*+H L−H%) contour triggers the presupposition that a salient alternative is possibly true (see also Oshima, 2008). Constant (2012, pp. 443–435) argues against the presuppositional account of this contour. Section 5 discusses this contour in a bit more detail.

5. Implicature

Speakers communicate information that is neither presupposed nor at-issue. What is the source of this information? Hearers figure out what speakers mean by making assumptions. For example, hearers generally assume that speakers are being cooperative. This assumption is summarized by Grice (1989) as the Cooperative Principle:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the Cooperative Principle.

(Grice, 1989)

The resulting meanings are called conversational implicatures. A conversational implicature is an inference about the speaker that the hearer must make in order to maintain the assumption of cooperativity. Consider the discourse in (16):

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What is A’s thought process after B’s utterance? First, A might observe that there is no reason to suppose that B is not being cooperative. So, B must think the gas station is relevant to A’s goal to get a coffee. Hence, must also think that A can get coffee at the gas station. The proposition that B must think that A can get a coffee at that gas station is a conversational implicature. Conversational implicatures have several properties. They are cancelable, reinforceable, not at-issue, and nondetachable (see Davis, 2014 for discussion and illustration of several of these properties). To illustrate, speaker B may cancel the implicature associated with There’s a gas station down the street by adding but it’s closed or but they don’t sell coffee there.

Grice (1989, pp. 50–53) suggests that the Cooperative Principle (in particular, the Relation maxim) not only applies to what is said but also to features of the means used for saying what is said: “stress clearly does in fact on many occasions make a difference to the speaker’s meaning; indeed it is one of the elements which help to generate implicatures” (Grice, 1989, p. 51). Recall from Section 4 that some researchers (e.g., Geurts & van der Sandt, 2004) propose that the intonational prominence associated with focus in English triggers an existential presupposition. Grice (1989) treats this as an implicature. In certain contexts, a speaker who utters (17) (adapted from Grice, 1989), with Jones intonationally prominent, “implicates that someone (other than Jones) paid the bill” (Grice, 1989, p. 52).

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The proposition that someone paid the bill is cancelable (JONES didn’t pay the bill. In fact, no one did).

The intonational prominence that marks free focus has also been claimed to trigger an exhaustivity inference. (Free focus is focus not associated with a focus-sensitive expression like only. This terminology is adopted from Büring, 2012a.) For example, Svoboda and Materna (1987, p. 198) give ‘The only x that Charlie visited is Prague’ as a paraphrase for (18).

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The exhaustivity inference associated with focus marking is easily cancelable, as shown in (19), suggesting that exhaustivity, like existence, is a conversational implicature (Büring, 2012a; Washburn, 2013).

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Focus has also been said to play a role in generating scalar (conversational) implicatures (Rooth, 1992). A linguistic scale (or Horn scale) is a set of linguistic expressions arranged in linear order by degree of informativeness or strength (Horn, 1972, 1989). For example, Pragmatics and Intonation all, most, some Pragmatics and Intonation is a linguistic scale. A sentence of the form All C(ommon)N(oun) V(erb)P(hrase) (for example, All linguists dance) is stronger than (more informative than) a sentence of the form Some CN VP (for example, Some linguists dance). A speaker who utters (20a) often implicates (20b). The reason is that if the speaker could have made a stronger statement (such as All linguists dance), then she would have. Since she did not make the stronger student, she must believe that the stronger statement is not true. See Davis (2014) for more discussion.

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Rooth (1992, p. 82) presents the pair in (21) (also discussed in Roberts, 2015, drawn from here), illustrating that intonational prominence can yield a scalar implicature. Consider the following context. Steve, Paul, and the speaker, Mats, took an exam. Later, George asks Mats how it went. The utterances in (21) convey different information, though their at-issue content is the same. In (21a), the verb passed is intonationally prominent. In (21b), the pronoun I is. In the context described, (21a) conveys that the speaker passed the exam but didn’t ace it; (21b) conveys that no one other than the speaker passed the exam.

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Culicover and Rochemont (1983, p. 126) assert that “particular contours define conventional implicatures” rather than conversational implicatures. Conventional implicatures, in the sense of Grice (1989), like conversational implicatures, do not affect what is said (at-issue content). There the similarities between conventional and conversational implicatures end. For example, unlike conversational implicatures, conventional implicatures are typically not cancelable and not reinforceable. In example (22), the source of the conventional implicature is but, triggering the contrastive not-at-issue proposition that pitbulls are not typically sweet. (See Potts, 2007 for empirical support for the claim that conventional implicatures should be distinguished from the other dimensions of meaning discussed in this article.)

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In Section 4, I briefly discussed the rise-fall-rise contour ( Pragmatics and Intonation L*+H L−H%) . To illustrate, the rise-fall-rise contour could be appropriately associated with B’s utterance in (23) (from Ward & Hirschberg, 1988), given A’s utterance.

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The literature on the rise-fall-rise contour (and its kin) is extensive (Bolinger, 1958; Büring, 2016; Constant, 2006, 2012; Gussenhoven, 1983; Hirschberg & Ward, 1984; Hirschberg & Ward, 1985; Hirschberg & Ward, 1992; Jackendoff, 1972; Ladd, 1980; Pierrehumbert, 1980; Pierrehumbert & Steele, 1987; Wagner, 2012; Ward & Hirschberg, 1985; Ward & Hirschberg, 1988, among others).

Several authors (Hirschberg & Ward, 1985; Ward & Hirschberg, 1985; Constant, 2006, 2012) have argued that the rise-fall-rise contour triggers a conventional (not conversational) implicature. Hirschberg and Ward (1985) and Ward and Hirschberg (1985) propose an account of the meaning of the fall-rise contour as a case of Gricean conventional implicature: the fall-rise contour conveys speaker uncertainty regarding some scale evoked in the discourse or some value on such a scale. They argue that rise-fall-rise passes all of the standard diagnostics for conventional implicature. For example, it does not affect an utterance’s truth conditions (like a conversational implicature) and it is not cancelable (unlike a conversational implicature). Constant (2012), building off the treatment of conventional implicatures in Potts (2005b), argues that the rise-fall-rise contour contributes the meaning that the speaker cannot safely claim all of the alternative propositions. Consider the example in (24) (from Constant, 2012), with the rise-fall-rise contour on John. The alternative propositions to John liked it have the form X liked it. According to Constant (2012), speaker B conveys that none of these alternative propositions can be safely claimed.

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Acknowledgment

The first two sections of this article draw heavily from Beaver and Clark (2008).

Further Reading

Beaver, D., & Clark, B. (2008). Sense and sensitivity: How focus determines meaning. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

Büring, D. (2003). On d-trees, beans, and B-accents. Linguistics and Philosophy, 26(5), 511–545.Find this resource:

Gussenhoven, C. (1984). On the grammar and semantics of sentence accents. Dordrecht: Foris.Find this resource:

Hirschberg, J. (2004). Pragmatics and intonation. In L. R. Horn & G. Ward (Eds.), The handbook of pragmatics (pp. 515–537). Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Kadmon, N. (2001). Formal pragmatics: Semantics, pragmatics, presupposition and focus. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Ladd, D. R. (2008). Intonational phonology (2d ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Pierrehumbert, J. (1980). The phonology and phonetics of English intonation (Unpublished PhD diss.). MIT, Cambridge, MA.Find this resource:

Pierrehumbert, J., & Hirschberg, J. (1990). The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In P. Cohen, J. Morgan, & M. E. Pollack (Eds.), Intentions in communication (pp. 271–311). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Roberts, C. (1996). Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. In J.-H. Yoon & A. Kathol (Eds.), Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 49 (pp. 91–136). Papers in Semantics. Columbus: Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.Find this resource:

Rooth, M. (1985). Association with focus (Unpublished PhD diss.). University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Find this resource:

Rooth, M. (1992). A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics, 1, 75–116.Find this resource:

Schwarzschild, R. (1999). GIVENness, AvoidF and other constraints on the placement of accent. Natural Language Semantics, 7(2), 141–177.Find this resource:

Selkirk, E. O. (1996). Sentence prosody: Intonation, stress, and phrasing. In J. A. Goldsmith (Ed.), The handbook of phonological theory (pp. 550–569). London: Basil Blackwell.Find this resource:

Winkler, S. (1997). Focus and secondary predication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Find this resource:

References

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