Rises inform, and plateaus remind: Exploring the epistemic meanings of “list intonation” in American English


This paper looks at the meaning of an understudied contour in American English, a plateau, as it contrasts with a rise, using a context (list intonation) in which they have been said to have different meanings. Results from a metalinguistic experiment (Experiment 1) suggested that plateaus and rises contrast on two dimensions. The first is epistemic: the plateaus indicate that a speaker believes the listener already knows the list items (a reminding meaning), while rises indicate that the speaker believes the listener doesn't already know the list items (an informing meaning). The second is attitudinal: the plateaus are heard as condescending, and the rises, helpful. An experiment (Experiment 2) confirmed these general findings using lists with three items. Experiment 3 replicated the results for the epistemic meanings with a single instance of the contours, suggesting that these meanings can be associated with plateaus and rises more generally, rather than just in lists. Experiment 4 explored how context might affect the attitudinal interpretation of these contours. Our results, showing that our proposed meanings for plateaus and rises hold across contexts, are consistent with other approaches to linguistic meaning focused on how intonation cues belief states, rather than being tied to specific speech acts like listing.



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Journal of Pragmatics



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