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Contrastive Focus in Processing

Dr. Kathryn Carlson *****NOTE---DIFFERENT DAY/TIME*****

Thursday, January 20, 2005, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Morehead State University, Department of English, Foreign Languages and Philosophy

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In order to understand language comprehension, we need to know not only how the lexicon is accessed and how syntactic structures are built, but also how complicated phenomena like focus are processed. This research explores the question of how the presence and position of contrastive focus can be indicated to the perceiver, and what the perceiver does with that information. In isolated English sentences, there are at least three potential means of indicating focus: focus particles like only, the syntactic construction of clefting, and contrastive L+H* pitch accents. In context, other means become available, such as preceding questions or contrasting statements. I conducted a series of experiments exploring the effectiveness of such focus indicators in ambiguous ellipsis sentences, testing two proposals in the literature: Kiss (1998) proposed that pitch accents could not indicate the same type of focus as only and clefting, while Pierrehumbert & Hirschberg (1990) claimed that L+H* pitch accents did indicate contrastive focus. The results of the experiments supported Pierrehumbert & Hirschberg, since pitch accents were as effective as only. But most focus indicators had surprisingly weak effects on processing, being able to influence but not determine the position of focus and subsequent ellipsis resolution. Additionally, an object bias was seen in most sentences, which Carlson, Dickey, Frazier & Clifton (in prep.) trace to perceivers´┐Ż initial expectations about focus position. Overall, it seems that perceivers consider multiple sources of information in determining a focus structure, including lexical, prosodic, and syntactic factors.

Dr. Kathryn Carlson *****NOTE---DIFFERENT DAY/TIME*****