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The surface-compositional semantics of English intonation

From: Language
Volume 90, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 2-57 | 10.1353/lan.2014.0010



This article proposes a syntax and a semantics for intonation in English and some related languages. The semantics is ‘surface-compositional’, in the sense that syntactic derivation constructs information-structural logical form monotonically, without rules of structural revision, and without autonomous rules of ‘focus projection’. This is made possible by the generalized notion of syntactic constituency afforded by combinatory categorial grammar (CCG)—in particular, the fact that its rules are restricted to string-adjacent type-driven combination. In this way, the grammar unites intonation structure and information structure with surface-syntactic derivational structure and Montague-style compositional semantics, even when they deviate radically from traditional surface structure.

The article revises and extends earlier CCG-based accounts of intonational semantics, grounding hitherto informal notions like ‘theme’ and ‘rheme’ (a.k.a. ‘topic’ and ‘comment’, ‘presupposition’ and ‘focus’, etc.) and ‘background’ and ‘contrast’ (a.k.a. ‘given’ and ‘new’, ‘focus’, etc.) in a logic of speaker/hearer supposition and update, using a version of Rooth’s alternative semantics. A CCG grammar fragment is defined that constrains language-specific intonation and its interpretation more narrowly than previous attempts.

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