July 22, 2004

Uphill and Downhill on the Alpe D'Huez Pitch Track

Dear Mark,

I didn't hear Lance Armstrong's recent post-stage-winning press conference, but the quote you discuss (here) is even more fun than you seem to have realized.

Relaxed and smiling at a news conference, he said, "I didn't think this would be the decisive day of the Tour," implying that it had been.

If the writer, Samuel Abt in the NYT, realized how important it was to clarify what the implication was, then that's really amazingly sensitive of him. You see, what Lance said, in written form, could either imply that the day was the decisive one, or imply the exact opposite.

The key is intonation. So listen up, Mark.

There are several different possible intonational patterns for each of the two readings I'm talking about. The reading that the writer thinks Lance intended is one you can get with very little stress on think, a high pitch accent on decisive and Tour (or on almost any combination of words in the propositional complement of think), ending with a final low at the very end of Tour, which may end up pronounced quite long, almost as if it were bisyllabic

In the following picture, which I'm hoping your browser will render in a fixed font, the line gives an idealized pitch track (idealized e.g. by not including the declination that would take place throughout the sentence, and ascii-izing the smooth interpolation between various pitch targets, and exaggerating in places). The funny symbols under the pitch track are what intonational phonologists  term ToBI labels, H* being a high accent on the stressed syllables of decisive and Tour, and L-L% being a combination of low tones at the end of the prosodic phrase. These are so-called boundary tones, and here are not heard as distinct from each other.

  I didn't think this would be the decisive day of the Tour
  __________________________________/                    \
                                      H*               H*L-L%   

The opposite reading, if I remember the classic source on this matter,  is one you get if you go low on think, and maintain that low right up to Tour, which then ends with a final high (boundary) tone. This is what is known in the literature as a contradiction contour. To recognize the reading try to add to the sentence ...and it wasn't, as opposed to ...but it was for the reading pictured above.

I didn't think this would be the decisive day of the Tour
  __________                                              /

            L*                                          L*L-H%

So, you see Mark, changing the intonation on an attitude report can completely switch the implicatures. But don't trust me. The reference you need, a classic paper which I believe was the first to discuss the contradiction contour, was written by two guys who really understand this stuff:

Liberman, M., and Sag, I., Prosodic form and discourse function, Papers from the Tenth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, pp. 416--427 Chicago, (1974).

Posted by David Beaver at July 22, 2004 01:18 AM