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Seminar at Speech, Music and Hearing:

The privileged position of the phrase-final accent - perception theory and intonation in Kammu

David House


The realization of pitch contours at the ends of the phrases has received considerable attention in intonation research for a variety of reasons. The marking of a boundary is a fundamental function of prosody, and the final boundary tone is an important component. Bruce (1987) for example demonstrated that the Swedish focal accent in phrase-final position contains the focal rise and the terminal fall, but that the focal accent rise becomes separated from the fall when the accent occurs earlier in the phrase. The combinations of prosodic functions found at the ends of phrases have also given rise to the analysis of the phenomena of truncation or compression of F0 that can occur when the final syllable ends in non-sonorant segments.

My own interest in the phrase-final accent stems from work in psychophonetics and application to short-term memory. In House (1995) it was shown that listeners were more sensitive to end-point frequencies in final position before silence than in non-final positions where listeners attended more to fall gradients or average frequency. These results can be interpreted such that short-term auditory memory for frequency is sharpened by the presence of a pause. This sharpening of memory may facilitate languages using the phrase-final tonal gesture for a multitude of functions ranging from accent to discourse marker. This may also play a part in explaining why languages seem to develop either truncation or compression strategies at the ends of phrases. Heightened sensitivity to end-point frequency may not allow random variation between the two, but could demand adherence to one or the other.

The phrase-final accent seems to be privileged in the sense that it can contain a multitude of simultaneous prosodic signals. In spontaneous speech, for example, a phrase-final focal rise can function as a prosodic feature conveying a friendly question (House, 2005). In ongoing work on intonation in Kammu (a Mon-Khmer language spoken in northern Laos) the phrase-final accent stands out as being especially rich in information (Karlsson et al. 2007). Within the SIFT project (Separating Intonation from Tone) which represents collaboration between KTH (David House) and Lund University (Anastasia Karlsson, Jan-Olof Svantesson and Damrong Tayanin) and is funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, we are comparing two main dialects, one tonal and one non-tonal dialect. Both dialects seem to engage the phrase-final accent to simultaneously convey phrase finality, utterance finality, and level of speaker involvement. In addition, the tonal dialect conveys low and high tone on the final accent as in words in other positions. Both dialects show clear evidence of truncation.

The seminar is based on an invited talk presented at the workshop `Experimental Studies on Intonation: Phonetic, Phonological and Psycholinguistic Aspects of Sentence Prosody´ held at Potsdam University from the 5th - 7th January 2009.


Bruce, G. 1987. How floating is focal accent? In Gregersen K. & Basbøll, H. (eds.) Nordic Prosody IV, 41-49, Odense University Press.

House, D. 1995. Perception of prepausal tonal contours: implications for automatic stylization of intonation. In Eurospeech 1995. Madrid, Spain. 949-952.

House, D. 2005. Phrase-final rises as a prosodic feature in wh-questions in Swedish human–machine dialogue. Speech Communication, 46, 268-283

Karlsson, A. M., House, D., Svantesson, J-O., & Tayanin, D. 2007. Prosodic Phrasing in Tonal and Non-tonal Dialects of Kammu. Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Saarbrücken, Germany. 1309-1312.

15:15 - 17:00
Friday January 23, 2009

The seminar is held in Fantum.

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Published by: TMH, Speech, Music and Hearing

Last updated: Wednesday, 23-Jun-2010 09:22:46 MEST