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Linguistic Inquiry

Fall 2013, Vol. 44, No. 4, Pages 632-650
(doi: 10.1162/LING_a_00141)
© 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Interpretation of Prosody in Disjunctive Questions
Article PDF (244.99 KB)

Alternative questions differ prosodically from identically worded disjunctive yes/no questions in their accentual characteristics and their final pitch contour. Alternative questions are canonically pronounced with a final fall and with pitch accents on all disjuncts, while disjunctive yes/no questions are canonically pronounced with a final rise and generally without pitch accents on every disjunct. This article presents an experiment investigating the importance of these prosodic features in disambiguation. The experiment shows that the final contour is the most informative prosodic feature. Accentual characteristics also play a significant role, but, contrary to what is often assumed in the literature, cannot force an alternative question interpretation or a yes/no question interpretation on their own. Several theories of disjunctive questions are discussed in the light of these experimental results.