Rethinking the basics of declination

Yi Xu

Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 102, Pt. 2, p. 3203. 1997

Declination, the tendency of fundamental frequency to gradually fall over the course of an utterance, has for a long time been treated as if it were a universal principle of speech intonation. Most intonation models adopt declination as a baseline upon which more local Fo patterns reside. A reexamination of the literature related to declination finds, however, that the existence of declination as an independent Fo-determining mechanism is far from being firmly established. Instead, some recent as well as earlier studies are found to provide evidence that various linguistic factors may be responsible for generating different local as well as global patterns of intonation, which, taken as a whole, may sometimes give the appearance of declination. These factors include sentence focus, topic initiation, word stress, and lexical tone. When these factors happen to be neutralized, virtually flat Fo contours may occur, as have been observed in some tone languages. Furthermore, the commonly assumed declination rate is found to well exceed the possible rates of pitch decline due to global physiological limitations. It is concluded that, rather than being a basic principle of intonation, declination is more likely to be an artifact of various linguistic factors plus certain local physiological constraints.

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