The Prosody and Meaning of Wh-Questions in American English

Nancy Hedberg, Juan M. Sosa, Emrah Görgülü, Morgan Mameni, Simon Fraser University

We report on a corpus study of the intonation and meaning of 200 spontaneous wh-questions in American English. The most frequent final nuclear contour is falling, and this category correlates with the most frequent pragmatic functions of wh-questions in general, such as requesting elaborative detail, opening a subtopic and directing information flow. The pragmatic function of rising wh-questions is shown to be a generalization of the echo-question pattern, with the interrogator intending to signal with the rising intonational contour that he or she is not attempting to take the floor from the ongoing speaker, but is rather attempting to support the ongoing speaker's discourse topic by requesting background information or asking for clarification of inaudible information. We conclude that distinct nuclear contours in wh-questions correlate with differences in their pragmatic function.