The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 10/9 - Jonah Katz

Please join us for this week’s Ling-lunch:

Jonah Katz & Lisa Selkirk
“Focus, phonetic scaling, and prosodic prominence”
Thursday, Oct. 9
12:30 – 1:45

In this paper we bring new experimental data to bear on three theoretical issues of current concern in the literature on focus and prosody. The first concerns the notion of focus itself. The second concerns the nature of phonetic scaling in sentences with focus constituents. And the third concerns the question whether there is a phonological representation of focus in terms of prosodic stress prominence.

The experiment reported on in this paper involves a paradigm comparing the prosody of broad focus all-new sentences with a novel class of sentences that contain a combination of discourse-new constituents and (putative) cases of Focus in English; these involve pitch-accented, prosodic phrase-final sequences of New-New vs. Focus-New vs. New-Focus constituents. We call the latter mixed focus sentences. Such an experimental paradigm permits the phonetic properties of New and Focus constituents to be examined in identical surrounding contexts, and so overcomes the drawbacks faced by classical comparisons of New in all-new broad focus sentences and (putative) Focus in narrow focus sentences, where the Focus is surrounded by discourse-given material. One finding of this experiment is that, in between sentence comparisons, Focus constituents do indeed show greater phonetic prominence than corresponding New constituents in identical contexts; in so doing, they provide important phonetic support for the hypothesis that a grammatical category Focus must be distinguished from discourse-new in the theory of grammar (contra Selkirk 1984, 1995, for example).