Focus and accent in English

TitleFocus and accent in English
Publication TypePresentation
Year of Publication2021
Conference NameDag van de Fonetiek 2021
AuthorsArvaniti, Amalia, Stella Gryllia, Cong Zhang, and Katherine Marcoux
PublisherNederlandse Vereniging voor Fonetische Wetenschappen
Conference Locationonline

Contrastive focus in English is marked with a rising accent (autosegmentally L+H*) and broad (all new) focus with a high accent (H*). However, inconclusive production and perception evidence supports the idea that L+H* is simply an emphatic version of H*, not phonologically distinct from it. We used Rapid Prosody Transcription to test these two views. Forty-seven speakers of Standard Southern British English (SSBE) listened to 86 SSBE utterances and marked the words they considered prominent or emphatic. Accents (N = 281) were independently coded as H* or L+H* using phonetic criteria, and as contrastive or non-contrastive using pragmatic criteria. If L+H* is an emphatic H*, L+H*s should be rated more prominent than H*s; if the accents encode a pragmatic distinction, contrastive accents should be rated more prominent than non-contrastive ones. The results showed effects of both accent and pragmatics (L+H* > H*; contrastive > non-contrastive) and no interaction. Contrastive L+H*s were rated most prominent, non-contrastive H*s least prominent, while non-contrastive L+H*s and contrastive H*s had average and almost identical ratings. Participants used different strategies: some focused on accent type, others on pragmatics, and still others made neither distinction. These results suggest that a reason for the continuing debate about H* and L+H* may be that the accents form a weak contrast which some speakers acquire and attend to while others do not. Similarly, researchers who focus on contrastive L+H* and non-contrastive H* see distinct categories, while those who focus on non-contrastive L+H*s and contrastive H*s tend to see a continuum.