I explore these questions using Mandarin particle ba, as well as English tag questions and rising intonation; time permitting, I will suggest a follow-up study using English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta. The Mandarin particle ba occurs with a variety of speech acts and clause types, typically declarative and imperative, but in rare cases interrogative as well. The English reverse-polarity tags (John is here, isn’t he?) occur with declarative utterances, as does rising intonation (John is here↑) which also occurs in other types of utterances (Congratulations↑). English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta are canonically used in imperative requests, but occur in other clause types (Can you help me, please?) and other speech acts (Can I sit?—Please do.).
I build on my prior work (Ettinger and Malamud 2013, Malamud and Stephenson 2014, inter alia) to offer a model of conversation where a unified semantics of clause types (cf. Starr 2010) constrains the range of interpretations for an utterance. A pragmatic conversational scoreboard tracks speakers’ public commitments to propositions, issues, and actions/preferences (cf. Farkas & Roelofsen forthcoming). These commitments constitute a target for collaborative updates; conversational moves may fall short of this target. Moves that fall short place their at-issue content on different parts of the Table, depending on the degree of authority the speaker and the hearer exercise over this content. Mandarin ba signals a lower degree of speaker authority, and potentially higher degree of hearer authority than would otherwise be expected for assertions and requests; pragmatic reasoning then derives the various effects of the utterance modifier.
In this talk, I first present results of an off-line judgement experiment using a paradigm developed to investigate implicit learning in phoneme categorization (e.g., Kraljic, Samuel & Brennan, 2008; Norris, McQueen & Cutler, 2003). The results suggest that listeners rapidly adapt their pragmatic interpretation of contrastive focus to best reflect speaker-specific realizations of prosodic cues (e.g., pitch and segment duration). I then discuss results from two eye-tracking experiments. We find that changes in the reliability of prosodic cues (estimated based on recent exposure) are reflected in changes in processing time-course: When a contrastive focus is deemed unreliable as a cue to a contrastive interpretation, listeners effectively down-weight it in their comprehension of following utterances. We conclude that such rapid recalibration of prosodic interpretations enables listeners to achieve robust online pragmatic interpretation of highly variable prosodic information.