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LINGUIST List 22.3023

Tue Jul 26 2011

Diss: Disc Analysis/Phonetics: Zellers: 'Prosodic Detail and Topic ...'

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        1.     Margaret Zellers , Prosodic Detail and Topic Structure in Discourse

Message 1: Prosodic Detail and Topic Structure in Discourse
Date: 25-Jul-2011
From: Margaret Zellers <mkz21cam.ac.uk>
Subject: Prosodic Detail and Topic Structure in Discourse
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Institution: Cambridge University
Program: Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2011

Author: Margaret Zellers

Dissertation Title: Prosodic Detail and Topic Structure in Discourse

Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
                            Phonetics

Subject Language(s): English (eng)

Dissertation Director:
Brechtje Post

Dissertation Abstract:

The research presented in this thesis addresses the role of prosody in
signalling the topic structure of longer stretches of discourse in Standard
Southern British English (SSBE), from the point of view of both the speaker
and the listener. My research makes several unique contributions to the
investigation of prosody and discourse topic. First, I investigate prosodic
signalling of topic structure taking into account a more complex model of
this structure than most previous phonetic studies of topic had used, as
well as taking a phonologically-informed view of the phonetic variation
aspects. Second, I address a neglect of non-intonational prosodic cues in
the context of discourse structure signalling. Third, I make a first
experimental attempt to investigate the perception of topic structure cues
by listeners in an on-line processing situation rather than by asking
metalinguistic questions.

A production experiment investigated the ways in which speakers of SSBE
vary their prosody in relation to the topic structure of long discourses. A
written text which was controlled for the topic structure and for segmental
characteristics was read aloud, and the recordings were analyzed with
regard to the topic structure. The well-known cues of pitch reset (i.e. a
very high pitch at the beginning of a new unit) and supradeclination
(gradual lowering of pitch across a unit) were found to correlate with the
global grouping of utterances into topic units. The size of the first
(prenuclear) F0 fall was found to vary systematically with the internal
topic structure of the topic groups. A number of non-F0 cues gave further
evidence for this idea, notably the variation in local speech rate at the
beginnings of utterances, which appeared in different degrees relative to
the topic structure category of the utterance, and which for some speakers
appeared to be used instead of the F0 fall cue. Variation in global speech
rate and in the distribution of aperiodicity, as well as the distribution
of rising versus falling initial pitch accents, were also found to show
reliable patterns related to the different topic structure categories. A
post-hoc validation investigated the usefulness of the categories adopted
for the text and the degree of individual variation in how texts are
organized into topics.

A perception experiment was used to further investigate the degree to which
listeners make use of information about topic structure during the
immediate or on-line process of listening. Subjects heard a series of
utterances which had had their prosody manipulated to suggest that they
contained a topic change or a topic hold, and then had to respond to
following sentences which were either consistent or not with the prosody of
the utterances they had heard. If the prosody and the semantic content did
not match, listeners were much slower to accept the following utterance as
fitting the context. This indicates that listeners are sensitive to
information about the topic structure of utterances as part of the natural
process of listening, and not only when asked to complete metalinguistic
tasks involving marking groups or identifying topics.

The robust production results in particular suggest that topic structure
marking is integral to the process by which speakers and listeners
communicate. Although the set of cues investigated is far from exhaustive,
both local and global prosodic characteristics of utterances provide
information that the listener can and apparently does take advantage of.




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