Realizing question intonation in Mandarin with neutral tone

Fang Liu and Yi Xu

Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119: 3304. 2006

Previous research has found that postfocus pitch range is lowered in Mandarin even in questions, although the amount of lowering is smaller than in statements. This study investigates whether postfocus pitch range is raised in questions where the postfocus words carry the neutral tone, which, being conventionally considered targetless, may be better suited for manifesting intonation. Eight native speakers of Mandarin each produced 80 statements and 80 questions. The sentences ended either with a sequence of 5 neutral tones or with 3 neutral tones followed by 2 high tones. The sentences had two alternative focus locations, one on the full tone (high, rising, low, or falling) immediately preceding the neutral tone sequence, and the other on the low tone before the full tone. Results show that (1) postfocus lowering occurred in the neutral-tone-final sentences in both statements and questions, just as in the full-tone-final sentences, and (2) sentence-final neutral tone had falling F0 even in questions, thus contrasting with sentence-final high tone, which had rising F0 in questions. The findings are interpreted as indication that the neutral tone, being associated with weak articulatory effort, is not as effective as full tones in realizing the statement/question contrast.

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