Rapid relief of stress in dealing with ambiguity

Abstract

This study investigates the influence of contrastive stress on the on-line interpretation of ambiguous spoken sentences containing the focus operator only. The pattern of phonological stress was manipulated so as to associate different linguistic expressions with the focus operator only and to invoke different interpretations. Sentences with marked and neutral stress were evaluated relative to visually presented scenes, which depicted a situation consistent with alternative interpretations. Using a head-mounted eye-movement recording system, we measured the processing difficulty associated with phonological stress and subjects’ fixation duration on the various objects in the scenes. Not only was response accuracy superior on sentences with marked stress, as compared to ones with neutral stress, the pattern of fixations revealed earlier resolution of ambiguity in the marked stress condition. The findings suggest that the parser computes multiple interpretations of ambiguous sentences on-line, with marked stress assisting in the rapid resolution of semantic ambiguity.

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2009-01-28

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