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LINGUIST List 20.2425

Tue Jul 07 2009

Qs: Prosodic Focus Data: Int'l Collaborations Needed

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        1.    Yi Xu, Prosodic Focus Data: Int'l Collaborations Needed

Message 1: Prosodic Focus Data: Int'l Collaborations Needed
Date: 06-Jul-2009
From: Yi Xu <yi.xuucl.ac.uk>
Subject: Prosodic Focus Data: Int'l Collaborations Needed
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Prosodic Focus: The Altaic Origin Hypothesis

Yi Xu, University College London, UK
Bei Wang, Minzu University of China, China
Szu-wei Chen, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan

Contrary to popular perception, there is increasing evidence that prosodic
focus (also known as contrastive stress, nuclear accent or sentence stress)
is realized in many languages not only by increasing the F0, duration,
intensity and upper spectral energy of the focused unit itself, but also by
compressing the pitch range and intensity of the post-focus components.
There has also been evidence that such post-focus compression (PFC) is a
highly effective perceptual cue of focus. PFC has been reported, explicitly
or implicitly, for English, German, Greek, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Korean
and interestingly, Mandarin Chinese. The case of Mandarin is especially
remarkable because the language not only is tonal, but also has
morpho-syntactic means of marking focus (fronting the focused item to the
head of the sentence and inserting /shi4/ before the focused item). Thus
PFC seems to be independent of the tonal and syntactic characteristics of the

The independence of PFC from tone is more clearly seen in a surprising new
finding that it is absent in Taiwanese, a tone language closely related to
Mandarin (Chen et al., to appear; Pan, 2007). More unexpectedly, PFC is
also found in the same study to be absent in Taiwan Mandarin, an official
language spoken in Taiwan which resembles Beijing Mandarin in many
respects. It seems that Taiwan Mandarin has lost PFC due to close contact
with Taiwanese, because pervasive bilingualism has been a fact of life in
Taiwan for several generations. To make things more interesting, there is
initial evidence that PFC is also absent in Cantonese, another southern
Chinese language (Gu & Lee, 2007).

Assuming this is all true, a natural question is, how did PFC get into
Beijing Mandarin in the first place? There are two apparent possibilities:
(a) it arose automatically in the language, and (b) it entered Mandarin
through language contact, just as it got lost in Taiwan through language
contact. The fact that PFC did not arise automatically in Taiwanese and
Cantonese makes (a) rather unlikely. But if we take (b) seriously, a
further question arises: from what language did Mandarin acquire PFC?

Historically, Northern China was in close contact with many non-Chinese
speaking populations, in particular, Mongolian and Manchurian, both ruling
China for many generations. Interestingly, both Mongolian and Manchurian
are Altaic languages. But so are Japanese and Korean (at least according to
some language family classifications) which also likely to have PFC. Thus
we are faced with an intriguing possibility: PFC originated from Altaic
languages and then spread, through language contact, to Mandarin, and, in a
similar manner, to European languages.

Outlandish as this possibility may seem, it is testable. That is, for it to
be true, the following are also likely to be true:
1) PFC exists in all Altaic languages;
2) PFC exists in most northern Chinese dialects/languages but in few or no
southern dialects/languages;
3) PFC exists in most European languages, except maybe a few in southern
4) PFC exists in no languages that have never been in close contact with
Altaic, European or northern Chinese languages.

To test these predictions, we have developed experimental protocols
consisting of basic production and perception experimental designs, highly
efficient procedures and software tools for taking accurate acoustic
measurements, and effective analysis procedures for determining the
presence/absence of PFC in a language. Please see Chen et al. (to appear)
for some details.

What we need now, however, are interested colleagues who, regardless of
what they think of the Altaic Origin Hypothesis, are keen to find out
whether PFC exists in languages of their own interest. We therefore call
for interested parties to join us in this international collaborative project.

Please contact Yi Xu at yi.xuucl.ac.uk if you are interested. For more
information about the methodology and potential impact of the project,
please visit:


P.S. We do not yet have funding for this collaborative project, but we are
thinking of applying for funding if there is enough interest.


Chen, S.-w., Wang, B. and Xu, Y. (to appear). Closely related languages,
different ways of realizing focus. To be presented at Interspeech 2009,
Brighton, UK

Gu, W. and Lee, T. (2007). Effects of tonal context and focus on Cantonese
F0. In Proceedings of The 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences,

Pan, H. (2007). Focus and Taiwanese unchecked tones. In Topic and Focus:
Cross-linguistic Perspectives on Meaning and Intonation. C. Lee, M. Gordon
and D. B├╝ring: Springer pp. 195-213.

Xu, Y., Xu, C. X. and Sun, X. (2004). On the Temporal Domain of Focus. In
Proceedings of International Conference on Speech Prosody 2004, Nara,
Japan: 81-84. (http://pc79-61.phon.ucl.ac.uk/yispapers/Xu-Xu-

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
                            Discourse Analysis
                            Historical Linguistics
                            Linguistic Theories

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