The role of prosody for the interpretation of rhetorical questions in German

Jana Neitsch, Bettina Braun, Nicole Dehe


Questions can be marked as rhetorical by their prosodic realisation. In two eye-tracking experiments, we tested whether wh-questions can be interpreted as rhetorical (RQ) or information-seeking (ISQ) based on prosody. We manipulated nuclear pitch accent type (rise-fall with a late-peak L*+H vs. falling with an early-peak H+!H*) and voice quality (breathy vs. modal) and investigated the contribution of the modal particle denn. Participants had to decide whether they heard an RQ or ISQ by clicking on one of two labels. Experiment 1 presented listeners with wh-questions containing the modal particle denn. Experiment 2 replicated Experiment 1 without the particle. Results showed that late-peak accent and breathy voice quality led to a rhetorical interpretation, while early-peak accent with modal voice quality was interpreted as information-seeking. The presence of the particle slightly strengthened these interpretations. Listeners decided faster when presented with late-peak/breathy and early-peak/modal compared to the other conditions. Fixation data showed different sensitivity to the prosodic cues depending on the presence of denn. In sum, listeners can use the prosodic realisation of wh-questions to interpret them as rhetorical or not, i.e. contextual linguistic information and other means (e.g., syntactic or lexical) are not strictly necessary.


 DOI: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2018-39

Cite as: Neitsch, J., Braun, B., Dehe, N. (2018) The role of prosody for the interpretation of rhetorical questions in German. Proc. 9th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2018, 192-196, DOI: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2018-39.


@inproceedings{Neitsch2018,
  author={Jana Neitsch and Bettina Braun and Nicole Dehe},
  title={The role of prosody for the interpretation of rhetorical questions in German},
  year=2018,
  booktitle={Proc. 9th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2018},
  pages={192--196},
  doi={10.21437/SpeechProsody.2018-39},
  url={http://dx.doi.org/10.21437/SpeechProsody.2018-39}
}