B3: "Prosody and Incremental Processing" (Michael Wagner)

Please note that there will not be a course on Friday 19 August. Instead, there will be an extra session on Monday 22 August, 18.15-19.45. The revised schedule is:


Mon 15th 16.15-17.45, Wed 17th 9.15-10.45 & 18.15-19.45, Thu 18th 11.15-12.45, Mon 22nd 16.15-17.45 & 18.15-19.45, Wed 24th 9.15-10.45, Thu 25th 11.15-12.45

Room: 1.13




This class discusses different dimensions of sentence prosody (see Wagner & Watson, 2010, for a review), with a focus on how they interact with incremental sentence production and incremental parsing.


Part 1: Prominence (4 sessions)

In recent years, a series of studies have shown evidence that the prosodic prominence of individual words depends on their frequency or conditional probability given prior words, or more generally on the 'accessibility' of linguistic expressions and their meanings/referents (Watson, 2010; Arnold & Watson, 2015, for reviews). These effects have been argued to be a consequence of the optimal use of a channel with limited capacity, where the signal for words carrying less information is reduced and that for words carrying more information is boosted, leading to a 'smooth signal' (Aylett & Turk, 2004, i.a.). The information theoretic approach rationalizes elegantly why the use of prosody seems to reflect contextual salience, and thus provides a principled and parsimonious account for the distribution of prosodic prominence in general and the placement of accents in particular. Linguistic theories focus and givenness, on the other hand, view prosodic accent placement as syntactically constrained way to encode anaphoric relations to salient linguistic antecedents.

This class discusses evidence that despite the intuitive appeal, facts about prosodic prominence across languages cannot easily be reduced to an information-theoretic rationale in terms of accessibility or predictability (Wagner & McCurdy, 2010; Wagner, 2012b; vander Klok et al., 2014; Wagner & Klassen, 2015; Wagner, 2015; Klassen & Wagner, Under review). While information-theoretic processing effects exist, a theory of the grammatical encoding of focus alternatives is nevertheless necessary (Rooth, 1992). The class will also address the syntactic underpinnings of focus and the role of focus in sentence processing (Poschmann & Wagner, 2015).


Part 2: Phrasing (3 sessions)

There is variability in the placement of prosodic boundaries, suggesting that there is only a loose connection between prosodic phrasing and syntactic constituents structure. Moreover, the placement of prosodic boundaries often seems to contradict our assumptions about syntactic constituent structure. We review experimental evidence pointing to flexibility in prosody (Allbritton et al., 1996; Schafer et al., 2000; Clifton et al., 2002; Snedeker & Trueswell, 2003; Kraljic & Brennan, 2005), and discuss new evidence on how the observed variability is constrained by syntax (Hirsch &Wagner, 2015, and related work), and what this might tell us about incremental sentence processing. We also discuss the nature of interactions between prosodic phrasing and segmental phonology, exploring the predictions of the novel hypothesis that the locality and variability of phonological sandhi (=cross-word) processes can be explained by the Locality of Production Planning (Wagner, 2011, 2012c; Wagner & Clayards, 2013; Tanner et al., 2015).


Part 3: Intonational Tunes (1 session)

We discuss several intonational tunes and their semantic/pragmatic import (Wagner et al., 2013; Goodhue et al., 2013; Goodhue & Wagner, 2015), and how a better understanding of these can improve our understanding of contrastive topics (Wagner, 2012a; McClay & Wagner, 2015). We'll also look at a recent project in my lab aimed at establishing a `bestiary' of intonational tunes (Goodhue et al., 2015).



  • Allbritton, D.W., G. McKoon & R. Ratcliff. 1996. Reliability of prosodic cues for resolving syntactic ambiguity. Journal of experimental psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 22(3). 714-735.
  • Arnold, Jennifer E. & Duane G. Watson. 2015. Synthesising meaning and processing approaches to prosody: performance matters. Language and Cognitive Processes 30. 88-102.
  • Aylett, Matthey & Alice Turk. 2004. The smooth signal redundancy hypothesis: A functional explanation for relationships between redundancy, prosodic prominence, and duration in spontaneous speech. Language and Speech 47(1). 31-56. doi:10.1177/00238309040470010201.
  • Clifton, Charles Jr., Katy Carlson & Lyn Frazier. 2002. Informative prosodic boundaries. Language and Speech 45(2). 87-114.
  • Goodhue, Dan, James Pickett & Michael Wagner. 2013. English reverse prosody in yes-no responses. In Raquel Fernández & Amy Isard (eds.), Proceedings of the 17th workshop on the semantics and pragmatics of dialogue, 73-81.
  • Goodhue, Dan & Michael Wagner. 2015. It's not just what you say, it's how you say it: Intonation, yes and no. In Deniz Ozyildiz & Thuy Bui (eds.), Proceedings of the 45th meeting of the north-east linguistic society, .
  • Goodhue, Daniel, Lyana Harrison, Yuen Tung Clémentine Su & Michael Wagner. 2015. Toward a bestiary of English intonational tunes. In Poster presented at the 46th conference of the north eastern linguistic society, concordia university, .
  • Hirsch, Aron & Michael Wagner. 2015. Rightward movement affects prosodic phrasing. In Deniz Ozyildiz & Thuy Bui (eds.), Proceedings of the 45th meeting of the north-east linguistic society, .
  • Klassen, Jeffrey & Michael Wagner. Under review. Prosodic prominence shifts are anaphoric. M.. McGill University.
  • vander Klok, Jozina, Heather Goad & Michael Wagner. 2014. Prosodic focus in English vs. French: A scope account. MS. McGill University. ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/002274.
  • Kraljic, Tanya & Susan E. Brennan. 2005. Prosodic disambiguation of syntactic structure: For the speaker or for the addressee? Cognitive Psychology 50. 194-231.
  • McClay, Elise & Michael Wagner. 2015. Accented pronouns and contrast. In Proceedings of cls 50, Proceedings of the 50th Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society in 2014.
  • Poschmann, Claudia & Michael Wagner. 2015. Extraposition and prosody in german. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 1-46. doi:10.1007/s11049-015-9314-8.
  • Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1(1). 75-116. doi:10.1007/BF02342617.
  • Schafer, Amy J., Shari R. Speer, Paul Warren & S. David White. 2000. Intonational disambiguation in sentence production and comprehension. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 29(2). 169-182.
  • Snedeker, Jesse & John Trueswell. 2003. Using prosody to avoid ambiguity: Effects of speaker awareness and referential context. Journal of Memory and Language 48. 103-130.
  • Tanner, James, Morgan Sonderegger & Michael Wagner. 2015. Production planning and coronal stop deletion in spontaneous speech. In Proceedings of the 18th international congress of phonetic sciences (ICPHS) in Glasgow, .
  • Wagner, Michael. 2011. Production-planning constraints on allomorpy. Proceedings of the Acoustics Week in Canada. Canadian Acoustics 39(3). 160-161.
  • Wagner, Michael. 2012a. Contrastive topics decomposed. Semantics & Pragmatics 5(8). 1-54. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3765/sp.5.8.
  • Wagner, Michael. 2012b. A givenness illusion. Language and Cognitive Processes 27(10). 1433{1458. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01690965.2011.607713.
  • Wagner, Michael. 2012c. Locality in phonology and production planning. In Proceedings of phonology in the 21 century: Papers in honour of glyne piggott. mcgill working papers, .
  • Wagner, Michael. 2015. Information structure and production planning. In Caroline Féry & Shinishiro Ishihara (eds.), The oxford handbook of information structure, Oxford University Press.
  • Wagner, Michael & Meghan Clayards. 2013. Syntactic effects on variable phonological processes and the locality of production planning. Workshop a the 2013 Linguistics Institute of the LSA: Universality and variability in segment prosody interactions. Ann Arbor, MI, July 12.
  • Wagner, Michael & Jeffrey Klassen. 2015. Accessibility is no alternative to alternatives. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience 30. 212-233. doi:10.1080/23273798.2014.959532.
  • Wagner, Michael, Lauren Mak & Elise McClay. 2013. Incomplete answers and the rise-fall-rise contour. In Raquel Fernández & Amy Isard (eds.), Proceedings of the 17th workshop on the semantics and pragmatics of dialogue, 140-149.
  • Wagner, Michael & Katherine McCurdy. 2010. Poetic rhyme reflects cross-linguistic differences in the grammar of information structure. Cognition 117. 166-175. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.08.007.
  • Wagner, Michael & Duane G. Watson. 2010. Experimental and theoretical advances in prosody: A review. Language and Cognitive Processes 25(7). 905-945. doi:10.1080/01690965.2010.504378.
  • Watson, Duane G. 2010. The many roads to prominence: Understanding emphasis in conversation. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 52. 163-183. doi:10.1016/S0079-7421(10)52004-8.


Lecturer: Michael Wagner, McGill University