Pitch and Causal Inference in English Temporal Adverbial Answers

Snippets Journal


We report a mismatch in standard American English between the focus alternatives one would expect based on pitch accent placement and the ones we actually entertain. Consider the following unbiased information-seeking wh-question:

(1) When did you start studying linguistics?

We discuss two possible answers. In (2), the nuclear pitch accent is on the verb, which allows for a neutral or broad focus interpretation, as well as a narrow one. However, in (3), it falls on the object, which allows only for a narrow focus interpretation (examples annotated in TOBI, Beckman and Hirschberg 1994; Beckman and Elam 1997, an autosegmental metrical transcription system, Beckman and Pierrehumbert 1986).

(2) When I mèt you.
H* L-L%
My initiation into linguistics began around when I met you.

(3) When I met yòu.
My initiation into linguistics began around when I met you,
and it has a cause/reason,
and that cause/reason (indirectly) was our meeting.

With regard to interpretation, (2) allows for an additional causal inference, while (3) requires it. Note that this contrast is clearer with elements such as weak pronouns that can be deaccentuated (Cardinaletti and Starke 1994), since a proper noun like Kim (which will not avoid nuclear stress) would systematically obscure the prosodic contrast. We argue that this does not trivially follow from a classic approach to focus alternatives (Rooth 1992; Hamblin 1976), where narrow DP focus on you should result in focus alternatives of the structure I met Logan/SaWChris/. .. . Here, instead, it evokes alternative reasons that don’t necessarily involve meeting anyone (e.g the cause/reason for me to start studying linguistics was {I read Syntactic Structures, I always loved words…}). Even if we take temporal clauses to routinely introduce reasons (e.g., via post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning; M. Esipova, p.c.), this alone does not explain why narrow focus on you would invite the alternatives we describe. Herein lies the mismatch.

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