Prosody or syntax? The perception of focus by Mandarin speakers

Mengzhu Yan, Sasha Calhoun, Paul Warren


Information structure describes the way in which information is organized in a discourse to serve the purpose of communication. A core part of information structure is focus, whose main function is to indicate new information or the information that updates the common ground. In a question (e.g., ‘What did the captain put on?’), the focus is the unknown information asked about by the wh-phrase. Prosody (prosodic prominence) and syntax (syntactic clefting) can be used to signal focus in Mandarin. However, the relative importance of these cues has not been established in speech perception. This study probes listeners’ judgements on the appropriateness of an answer to a question in Mandarin. Results show that prosodic prominence appears to be more effective than syntactic clefting as a cue for listeners to perceive where the focus is. Syntax plays an inhibitory rather than facilitatory role. This research provides the first evidence of the interaction of syntax and prosody in the perception of focus in Mandarin, and contributes to a growing body of research showing cross-linguistic differences in the weighting of prosodic and syntactic cues in the perception of focus.


 DOI: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2020-71

Cite as: Yan, M., Calhoun, S., Warren, P. (2020) Prosody or syntax? The perception of focus by Mandarin speakers. Proc. 10th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2020, 347-351, DOI: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2020-71.


@inproceedings{Yan2020,
  author={Mengzhu Yan and Sasha Calhoun and Paul Warren},
  title={{Prosody or syntax? The perception of focus by Mandarin speakers}},
  year=2020,
  booktitle={Proc. 10th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2020},
  pages={347--351},
  doi={10.21437/SpeechProsody.2020-71},
  url={http://dx.doi.org/10.21437/SpeechProsody.2020-71}
}