Nancy Hedberg, Juan M. Sosa, Emrah Görgülü
June 14, 2014
In order to investigate the distinct nuances of meaning conveyed by the different intonational contours encountered in yes-no questions in English, we conducted a corpus study of the intonation of 410 naturally occurring spoken interrogative-form yes-no questions in American English. First we annotated the intonation of each question using ToBI and then examined the meaning of each utterance in the context. We found that the low-rise nuclear contour (e.g., L*H-H%) is the unmarked question contour and is by far the most frequently occurring. Yes-no questions with falling intonation (e.g. H*L-L%) do not occur frequently, but when they do, they can be classified in speech act terms as “non-genuine” questions, where one or more felicity conditions on genuine questions are not met. Level questions (e.g., L*H-L%) tend to be “stylized” in meaning and pattern with falling questions in being non-genuine. We also found that the pitch accent on high-rise questions (e.g., H*H-H%), where the final pitch contour starts high and ends higher, tends to mark information that is given in the discourse or a function word. These are syllables that would normally remain unaccented parts of the post-nuclear “tail” of the intonation phrase. This leads us to propose that many such accents are “post-nuclear accents” in the sense of Ladd 2008.