two new articles online

Michael Wagner and Katherine McCurdy. 2010. Poetic rhyme reflects cross-linguistic differences in information structure. Cognition 117. 166–175. [doi] [preprint]

Identical rhymes (right/write, attire/retire) are considered satisfactory and even artistic in French poetry but are considered unsatisfactory in English. This has been a consistent generalization over the course of centuries, a surprising fact given that other aspects of poetic form in French were happily applied in English. This paper puts forward the hypothesis that this difference is not merely one of poetic tradition, but is grounded in the distinct ways in which information-structure affects prosody in the two languages. A study of rhyme usage in poetry and a perception experiment confirm that native speakers’ intuitions about rhyming in the two languages indeed differ, and a further perception experiment supports the hypothesis that this fact is due to a constraint on prosody that is active in English but not in French. The findings suggest that certain forms of artistic expression in poetry are influenced, and even constrained, by more general properties of a language.

Mara Breen, Evelina Fedorenko, Michael Wagner and Edward Gibson: Acoustic correlates of information structure. 2010. Language and Cognitive Processes25.7. 1044–1098. [doi] [preprint]

This paper reports three studies aimed at addressing three questions about the acoustic correlates of information structure in English: (1) do speakers mark information structure prosodically, and, to the extent they do; (2) what are the acoustic features associated with different aspects of information structure; and (3) how well can listeners retrieve this information from the signal? The information structure of subjectverbobject sentences was manipulated via the questions preceding those sentences: elements in the target sentences were either focused (i.e., the answer to a wh-question) or given (i.e., mentioned in prior discourse); furthermore, focused elements had either an implicit or an explicit contrast set in the discourse; finally, either only the object was focused (narrow object focus) or the entire event was focused (wide focus). The results across all three experiments demonstrated that people reliably mark (1) focus location (subject, verb, or object) using greater intensity, longer duration, and higher mean and maximum F0, and (2) focus breadth, such that narrow object focus is marked with greater intensity, longer duration, and higher mean and maximum F0 on the object than wide focus. Furthermore, when participants are made aware of prosodic ambiguity present across different information structures, they reliably mark focus type, so that contrastively focused elements are produced with greater intensity, longer duration, and lower mean and maximum F0 than noncontrastively focused elements. In addition to having important theoretical consequences for accounts of semantics and prosody, these experiments demonstrate that linear residualisation successfully removes individual differences in people’s productions thereby revealing cross-speaker generalisations. Furthermore, discriminant modelling allows us to objectively determine the acoustic features that underlie meaning differences.

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