Communicative Context Affects Use of Referential Prosody

Cognitive Science 43 (11):e12799 (2019)
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Abstract

The current study assessed the extent to which the use of referential prosody varies with communicative demand. Speaker–listener dyads completed a referential communication task during which speakers attempted to indicate one of two color swatches (one bright, one dark) to listeners. Speakers' bright sentences were reliably higher pitched than dark sentences for ambiguous (e.g., bright red versus dark red) but not unambiguous (e.g., bright red versus dark purple) trials, suggesting that speakers produced meaningful acoustic cues to brightness when the accompanying linguistic content was underspecified (e.g., “Can you get the red one?”). Listening partners reliably chose the correct corresponding swatch for ambiguous trials when lexical information was insufficient to identify the target, suggesting that listeners recruited prosody to resolve lexical ambiguity. Prosody can thus be conceptualized as a type of vocal gesture that can be recruited to resolve referential ambiguity when there is communicative demand to do so.

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