Prosodic cues to syntatic structures in speech production

Sarah Massicotte-Laforge, Andréane Melaçon, Rushen Shi


Children's initial syntactic acquisition tasks include finding clausal and phrasal units from continuous speech stream and assigning words to grammatical categories. This study inquires if prosodic cues exist in adult speech and mark syntactic units. Participants were Quebec-French speakers. In Experiment 1 participants read Determiner+Noun and Pronoun+Verb utterances. Determiners and pronouns were French words. Nouns and verbs were pseudo-words (e.g., mige, krale, vare) counterbalanced in their occurrences in the utterances. Their prosodic properties (duration, pitch, intensity) were measured. Results showed that the two categories did not differ in prosody: noun versus verb productions of
these pseudo-words were equivalent. Experiment 2 tested whether larger utterances were produced with prosodic cues supporting different grammatical categories and phrasal groupings. The same pseudo-words were the final words (counterbalanced) in 1) [Determiner+Adjective+Noun] and 2)[[Determiner+Noun]+[Verb]] structures. The second word in both structures was felli. Results showed that the last word as nouns versus verbs differed significantly in duration, pitch and intensity. Moreover, the initial consonant of verb productions was longer, with a distinct preceding pause. The second word in (2) exhibited categorical and boundary cues, differing from the second word in (1) in duration, pitch and intensity. We suggest that these acoustic cues may help infants first parse larger utterances and then acquire the syntactic properties of phrases and words based on their distribution.

DOI: 10.17074/2238-975X.2015v11n1p85

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