CUNY Psycholinguistics Supper : Kristen Syrett (Rutgers University)

MAR 11, 2014 | 6:30 PM TO 8:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




March 11, 2014: 6:30 PM-8:00 PM




Kristen Syrett (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)

Prosodic cues to quantifier scope: Why it pays to listen carefully

In 1972, Jackendoff claimed that speakers systematically disambiguate sentences involving the scopal interaction of quantification and negation (All the men didn’t go) with distinct intonational contours linked to what is either presupposed or asserted.  Since then, one often encounters introspective observations about the role of prosody in sentence disambiguation, along with vague statements about how prosody was controlled for in various experiments, accompanied by little to no convincing empirical support for these claims.  Uncovering such evidence would not only provide further evidence for the nature of the connection between syntactic representation and prosody, but would also indicate that there is evidence in the speech signal for a language learner to identify a speaker’s intended interpretation.  However, the few attempts to determine whether speakers produce such cues, or whether listeners can use them, have come up largely empty handed.  In this talk, I will present a set of laboratory studies demonstrating that although the prosodic cues to the scopal relations are variable within and across speakers (and do not reduce to a difference in rising or falling sentence-final contour), when a model set of speaker productions is selected and paired with discourse contexts controlling for the association of negation with the presupposition or focus/assertion (or, whether negation is part of the QUD), listeners are able to recruit such auditory cues to assign the correct interpretation.  These findings lead me to defend the position that psycholinguistic studies involving sentential ambiguity should carefully control for features of the discourse context favoring sentence interpretation and the prosody with which target sentences are delivered.