Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Melody in speech

All languages use melody in speech, primarily via rises and falls of the pitch of voice. Such pitch variation is pervasive, offering a wide spectrum of nuance to sentences – an additional layer of meaning. For example, saying “yes” with a rising pitch implies a question (rather than an affirmation). Melody is essential for communication in social interaction.

Yiya Chen
Vici Vici

Languages employ melody in diverse ways to convey different layers of meaning in speech. In languages like Standard Dutch, a wide range of sentence-level meanings is conveyed by pitch variation, such as asking questions, highlighting important information, signaling intention, and conveying attitude or emotion.

This, however, is not the only level at which melody is used to convey meaning. The majority of the world’s languages (60-70%) are tone languages, which use pitch variation to distinguish individual word meanings (e.g. shi means ‘yes’ with a falling tone but ‘stone’ with a rising tone). Tone language speakers are nevertheless able to use pitch variation to express sentence-level meanings, too.

Worldwide, tone languages vary widely. Two well-recognized differences are particularly relevant. One concerns the form of word-level melody; some languages mainly use pitch levels (high, mid, low) to distinguish words, while others employ pitch contours as well (e.g., rising vs. falling). Another concerns the function of word-level melody; in some languages, tones not only distinguish words, but also identify grammatical function (e.g. different tenses of a verb or different cases of a noun). Thus, in a tone language, multiple layers of information, both at the word and sentence level, are conveyed in the same melodic signal in speech.

While we recognize that these different layers of meaning as well as the behavioral and neuro-cognitive aspects of producing and interpreting them are tightly intertwined, how they are connected and how those connections may be manifested differently in the world's languages remains poorly understood. This project therefore proposes to address the following significant, yet, unresolved questions. 

  1. How do typologically different tone languages differ in how speakers vary pitch to signal both word-level tone and sentence-level intonation?
  2. How do these differences affect the way listeners use pitch variation to recognize words and interpret sentences?
  3. Do tonal system differences also modulate language-specific brain networks involved in deriving meanings from melodic signals?

To address these questions, this interdisciplinary proposal includes well-controlled systematic comparisons of the way pitch variations relate to word- and sentence-level meanings in typologically different tonal systems. The aim of this research program is to understand the general and language-specific mechanisms that guide the production, comprehension, and neural processing of pitch variation in tone languages.

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