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Cogn Sci. 2009 Jan;33(1):127-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2008.01007.x.

The semantics of prosody: acoustic and perceptual evidence of prosodic correlates to word meaning.

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1
Department of Psychology, Emory University Department of Psychology, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Abstract

This investigation examined whether speakers produce reliable prosodic correlates to meaning across semantic domains and whether listeners use these cues to derive word meaning from novel words. Speakers were asked to produce phrases in infant-directed speech in which novel words were used to convey one of two meanings from a set of antonym pairs (e.g., big/small). Acoustic analyses revealed that some acoustic features were correlated with overall valence of the meaning. However, each word meaning also displayed a unique acoustic signature, and semantically related meanings elicited similar acoustic profiles. In two perceptual tests, listeners either attempted to identify the novel words with a matching meaning dimension (picture pair) or with mismatched meaning dimensions. Listeners inferred the meaning of the novel words significantly more often when prosody matched the word meaning choices than when prosody mismatched. These findings suggest that speech contains reliable prosodic markers to word meaning and that listeners use these prosodic cues to differentiate meanings. That prosody is semantic suggests a reconceptualization of traditional distinctions between linguistic and nonlinguistic properties of spoken language.

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