Abstract: Erwin Lares

Disambiguating compositional readings from idiomatic readings
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Statement of the problem: Stress languages (such as Spanish and English) employ F0 movements not to make lexical distinctions the way tonal languages do, but rather to convey pragmatic distinctions. The effect of intonation to signal informational structure is well documented in a variety of languages. For Spanish, Beckman et al (2002), Face (2002), Hualde (2002, 2003).

Most utterances containing an idiomatic stretch can give rise to two distinct interpretations: a compositional/literal meaning and a non-compositional/idiomatic meaning. Despite their difference in meaning, the two utterances are taken to be indistinguishable from one another (Katz and Postal, 1963, Fraser 1970, and Katz 1973). This paper explores the use of auditory cues as a potential disambiguating mechanism employed by speakers of Spanish to signal the interpretation they wish to convey.

Lit review: Literature on intonation in Spanish shows that Spanish relies on changes in F0 to signal a variety of pragmatic distinctions. Beckman et al (2002) indicate that changes in intonation can be employed to distinguish declarative sentences from interrogatives, exclamatives, and imperative sentences. Nibert (1999, 2005) shows that intonation can be used to signal the intended phrasing of structures that are syntactically ambiguous at surface level. Face (2002) shows that F0 peak alignment in Spanish can be used to signal differences between broad-focus sentence and contrastive focus sentences. Rao (2013) reports deaccenting of ‘communicative words’ when speakers intend to convey sarcasm or insincerity.

Proposal: This paper deals specifically with VO idioms – a verb and its object. For instance, the Spanish idiom María estiróV la pataO lit. ‘Mary stretchedV her legO’ has the idiomatic interpretation of ‘María died’. Besides the obvious difference in meaning, we observe an aspectual shift from a literal accomplishment to an idiomatic achievement (Vendler, 1967 and Dowty, 1979).

Existing literature tells us that there shouldn’t be any differences surface between the two interpretations. In declarative sentences uttered with neutral intonation, content words are expected to bear a pitch accent (Hualde 2002:2). Specifically, we expect declarative statements containing VO idioms to exhibit three distinct F0 peaks anchored to the stressed syllables of the subject, the verb, and the object (Beckman et al 2002:174) for both statements alike.

This study explores the effect the semantic loss of the notional objects has on the intonational contour of the phrase. In particular, I’ll be looking for changes affecting the object portion of the utterance since an F0 peak is expected to be anchored to the object of the declarative statement. If we find that the object is systemically affected, idiomatic disambiguation can be added to the pragmatic uses that have been attributed to pitch in the literature, Hualde (2002:3) “regarding pitch-accent shape, the Ibero- and Italo Romance languages can use this feature in a pragmatically contrastive manner.”

Predictions: I hypothesize that speakers may be signaling idiomaticity by means of changes to the intonational contours assigned to the phrase contra the existing understanding that compositional and non-compositional interpretations are identical. In the case of VO idioms, we suspect the locus of the difference resides in the F0 pitch accent bore by the object.