Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 563–586 | Cite as

Question intonation contours as dynamic epistemic operators

  • Pilar Prieto
  • Joan Borràs-ComesEmail author


Although intonation has been traditionally claimed to be a strong indicator of the epistemic commitments of the participants in a discourse, very few empirical investigations have addressed specific semantic hypotheses related to the precise epistemic contribution of question intonation to utterance interpretation. The main aim of this paper is to test the claim that intonation in Catalan plays an important role in the specification of dynamic epistemic commitments in two complementary directions, i.e., speaker commitments to the speaker’s own proposition and speaker agreement with the addressee’s proposition. Following Krifka’s commitment space semantics (Krifka 2015, 2017), we will test the claim that question intonation in Catalan encodes different levels of assert (commitment) and reject ((dis)agreement) epistemic operators. A total of 119 Central Catalan listeners participated in an acceptability judgment task and were asked to rate the perceived degree of acceptability between a set of interrogative utterances (variously produced with one of four intonational contours) and their previous discourse context (which was controlled for epistemic bias). Results showed that question intonation contours encode binary (and not degree) distinctions in speaker commitment and speaker agreement. That is, results showed that question intonation encodes fine-grained information about the epistemic stance of the speaker, not only in relation to the speaker’s own propositions but also in relation to the addressee’s propositions. From a crosslinguistic point of view, we argue that intonation closely parallels the function of modal markers in their encoding of speaker commitment and speaker agreement operators.


Intonation Yes-no questions Epistemic operators Speaker commitment Speaker agreement Epistemicity 



We are grateful to the three reviewers and the editor, J.A. Legate, for their very helpful comments on the first version of this manuscript. We also thank B. Braun, T. Espinal, C. Gussenhoven, and M. Romero for thoughtful ideas and comments on several parts of the manuscript. This research was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (FFI2015 66533 “Intonational and gestural meaning in language”) and by a grant awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (2014SGR 925) to the Prosodic Studies Group.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ICREABarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.Dept. of Translation and Language SciencesUniversitat Pompeu FabraBarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Dept. of Spanish Philology & Dept. of Language and Literature Education and Social Sciences EducationUniversitat Autònoma de BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

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