April 10, 2015

Guest speaker: Meghan Armstrong (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The Department of Spanish and Portuguese is hosting a guest talk by Meghan Armstrong, an Assistant Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Meghan's research interests include language acquisition, pragmatics, intonation, Puerto Rican Spanish, and African-American Vernacular English. She will be giving a talk at Victoria College 212 on Friday, April 17, at 2 PM: "Intonation and belief states in adult and child speech: The state of the art."

This talk synthesizes recent research on how speakers are able to convey their mental states through intonation, in addition to how children learn to do so. Not only do speakers convey information about phrasing, sentence type and focus through intonation, but they are also able to convey information about their belief states (Ward & Hirschberg, 1985).  In fact, speakers are often able to mark a sentence for utterance type and belief state at the same time (Armstrong, in press; Armstrong & Prieto, in press). This has been documented especially for the case of polar, or yes-no questions (Escandell-Vidal, 1998; Armstrong, in press). The idea that speakers may mark sentences for both sentence type and epistemic states through an intonational morpheme is perhaps unsurprising since the same phenomenon is observed in many languages through particles. Oftentimes sentence-final particles (SFPs) specifically mark an utterance as a question (sentence-type marking), while at the same time giving the hearer information about the speaker’s epistemic stance towards propositional content (belief state intonation). This is the case for languages such as Lao, or Tzetzal, for example (Enfield et al., 2013). Often times intonationists are tempted to assume that contour choice for polar questions is based on coarse-grained dichotomies such as information-seeking vs. confirmation-seeking questions, or neutral versus biased questions. While it is of course possible that contour choice for polar questions is based on these types of dichotomies in some languages, we should not expect this to be the case for every language. This is clear for the case of SFPs in the languages that have them – cross-linguistic study of SFPs shows that the way in which the semantic space is carved for SFPs varies from language to language. Therefore, the type of information about speaker belief states that is grammaticalized from language to language varies. The case of intonation seems to be no different. Drawing from recent experimental work in Romance and American English, I show that languages and dialects are indeed able to convey different types of belief state information through intonational morphemes. I will discuss ways of improving our methodology to better understand how speakers carve their semantic spaces intonationally. Finally, I will discuss how these facts have implications for L1 acquisition of intonation, proposing that a “meaning-based” component will be crucial as researchers work towards a theory of intonational development.

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