Analyzing discourse functions with acoustic features and phone embeddings: non-lexical items in Taiwan Mandarin

Non-lexical items are expressive devices used in conversations that are not words but are nevertheless meaningful. These items play crucial roles, such as signaling turn-taking or marking stances in interactions. However, as the non-lexical items do not stably correspond to written or phonological forms, past studies tend to focus on studying their acoustic properties, such as pitches and durations. In this paper, we investigate the discourse functions of non-lexical items through their acoustic properties and the phone embeddings extracted from a deep learning model. Firstly, we create a non-lexical item dataset based on the interpellation video clips from Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Then, we manually identify the non-lexical items and their discourse functions in the videos. Next, we analyze the acoustic properties of those items through statistical modeling and building classifiers based on phone embeddings extracted from a phone recognition model. We show that (1) the discourse functions have significant effects on the acoustic features; and (2) the classifiers built on phone embeddings perform better than the ones on conventional acoustic properties. These results suggest that phone embeddings may reflect the phonetic variations crucial in differentiating the discourse functions of non-lexical items.

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