Categories and Gradience in Intonation

Categories and Gradience in Intonation:
Evidence from linguistics and neurobiology

Principal Investigator: Dr Brechtje Post

ESRC award no. RES-061-25-0347; £290,999.10

Intonation, or the melody of speech, plays a central role in human communication, since it can provide immediate cues to the start of new words or phrases in the speech stream, and to the meaning of utterances. Consequently, wrong intonation often leads to communication breakdown.

However, intonation is difficult to analyse, because it signals multiple functions simultaneously. Form and meaning are closely intertwined, and the relationship between them is difficult to formalise in a theoretical model.

The main objective of this research is to test the central principle of the predominant theoretical framework for intonation analysis (the ‘Autosegmental-Metrical approach’) which crucially distinguishes between categorical information in intonation and gradiently varying information. This allows the identification of critical intonational features, which can be used to define intonation’s role in speech perception and its neural substrates.

Combining experimental tasks with the latest scanning techniques, the project findings provide evidence not only for the key principle on which virtually all current research in intonation hinges, but also the first neurobiological evidence for a refined, linguistically informed model of the neural underpinnings of intonation. Our understanding of human communication and the neural and cognitive systems that support it crucially depends on such insights.

Project start date 1 January 2009; end date 30 September 2012 (ESRC First Grant)