Sicoli, M. A., Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Marked initial pitch in questions signals marked communicative function. Language and Speech,58(2), 204-223. doi:10.1177/0023830914529247.
In conversation, the initial pitch of an utterance can provide an early phonetic cue of the communicative function, the speech act, or the social action being implemented. We conducted quantitative acoustic measurements and statistical analyses of pitch in over 10,000 utterances, including 2512 questions, their responses, and about 5000 other utterances by 180 total speakers from a corpus of 70 natural conversations in 10 languages. We measured pitch at first prominence in a speaker’s utterance and discriminated utterances by language, speaker, gender, question form, and what social action is achieved by the speaker’s turn. Through applying multivariate logistic regression we found that initial pitch that significantly deviated from the speaker’s median pitch level was predictive of the social action of the question. In questions designed to solicit agreement with an evaluation rather than information, pitch was divergent from a speaker’s median predictably in the top 10% of a speakers range. This latter finding reveals a kind of iconicity in the relationship between prosody and social action in which a marked pitch correlates with a marked social action. Thus, we argue that speakers rely on pitch to provide an early signal for recipients that the question is not to be interpreted through its literal semantics but rather through an inference.