Prosodic Cues to Noun and Verb Categories in Infant-Directed Mandarin Speech

Aijun Li , Rushen Shi, Wu Hua, Institute of Linguistics, CASS

Mandarin Chinese, a Sino-Tibetan language, has distinct syntactic and morphological structures in comparison to Indo-European languages. This study concerns Chinese infants’ initial derivation of grammatical categories. We examined the prosodic properties of nouns and verbs of the maternal input speech. Non-word disyllabic noun-verb homophones were created and embedded in frequent carrier phrases. Mandarin-speaking mothers read these stimuli to their babies during a play session. Prosodic properties of noun and verb productions by these mothers were analyzed. The results show that isolated homophone nouns and verbs were identical prosodically. However, when these items were embedded in noun and verb carrier phrases, they exhibited some prosodic distinctions. Specifically, mean F0 of the second syllable of the non-words was significantly different in verb versus noun productions, and the duration ratios of the two syllables of the noun productions also differed for that of the verb productions. These results suggest that maternal speech contains some prosodic cues to nouns versus verbs, which might support infants’ acquisition of grammatical categories. Index Terms: infant, lexical category, prosodic cues, verb and noun