Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

An experimental approach to the interaction of tone sandhi and focus expression in six dialects of Chinese

This project employs a systematic experimental approach to examine the interaction of these two hitherto independent lines of research (tone sandhi and focus realization) in six dialects of Chinese, which lie on a continuum between dialects with dense tonal distributions and sparser distributions. In so doing, we hope to contribute to the understanding of the phonetics and phonology of tone sandhi, and to a cross-linguistic theory of focus realization, which has largely been based on European and African languages.

Duration
2008  -   2012
Contact
Yiya Chen
Funding
NWO VIDI NWO VIDI

The way sentences are pronounced signals listeners how they should relate information in the sentence to the preceding discourse, a phenomenon known as ‘focus’ or ‘information structure’. As in many languages, expression of focus in English is determined by how constituents are grouped into domains and how pitch accents are realized within domains. For instance, if  She teaches in China is an answer to the question ‘What does she do?’, pitch accents give prominence to both  teaches and  China, but if the same question is answered  She teaches linguistics, only  linguistics is accented, though  teaches is also focused as part of the answer. The difference here is due to verbs and objects forming different phrasal constructions from verbs and prepositions. 

Languages differ in the way phrasing and prominence interact to signal focus. Chinese dialects present a challenging and revealing research area for this interaction. These dialects use pitch changes (tone) to indicate word meanings in isolation, but tonal realization of words in phrases is determined by domain formation (i.e. phrasing effect) and pitch changes (i.e. prominence effect) within the domain, together known as tone sandhi. Tone sandhi is a phonological change occurring in tonal languages, in which the tones assigned to individual words and morphemes change based on the pronunciation of adjacent words or morphemes. Crucially, focus affects tone sandhi.

Thus far, studies on tone sandhi, however, rarely consider the effect of different focus conditions. Work on focus realization has also been limited to simple morpho-syntactic constituents in few dialects. This project examines the way Chinese dialects use pitch changes (tone) to indicate word meanings in isolation, but determine the tonal realization of words in domain formation (phrasing effect), and pitch changes (prominence effect) within the domain. We propose a systematic experimental approach to examining the interaction of these two hitherto independent lines of research (tone sandhi and focus realization) in six dialects of Chinese, which lie on a continuum between dialects with dense tonal distributions and sparser distributions. In so doing, I hope to contribute to the understanding of the phonetics and phonology of tone sandhi, and to a cross-linguistic theory of focus realization, which has largely been based on European and African languages.

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