Word-specific tonal realizations in Mandarin

11 May 2024  ·  Yu-Ying Chuang, Melanie J. Bell, Yu-Hsiang Tseng, R. Harald Baayen ·

The pitch contours of Mandarin two-character words are generally understood as being shaped by the underlying tones of the constituent single-character words, in interaction with articulatory constraints imposed by factors such as speech rate, co-articulation with adjacent tones, segmental make-up, and predictability. This study shows that tonal realization is also partially determined by words' meanings. We first show, on the basis of a Taiwan corpus of spontaneous conversations, using the generalized additive regression model, and focusing on the rise-fall tone pattern, that after controlling for effects of speaker and context, word type is a stronger predictor of pitch realization than all the previously established word-form related predictors combined. Importantly, the addition of information about meaning in context improves prediction accuracy even further. We then proceed to show, using computational modeling with context-specific word embeddings, that token-specific pitch contours predict word type with 50% accuracy on held-out data, and that context-sensitive, token-specific embeddings can predict the shape of pitch contours with 30% accuracy. These accuracies, which are an order of magnitude above chance level, suggest that the relation between words' pitch contours and their meanings are sufficiently strong to be functional for language users. The theoretical implications of these empirical findings are discussed.

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