The perception of phrasal prominence in English, Spanish and French conversational speech

Author(s): José Ignacio Hualde, Jennifer S. Cole, Caroline L. Smith, Christopher D. Eager, Timothy Mahrt and Ricardo Napoleão de Souza


Since Bolinger’s discovery that pitch cues accentual prominence in English, a tension has arisen between two strategies: equating accent with pitch excursions and relying on perception for identifying accented words. This paper investigates the relation between prominence judgments from untrained listeners and accentual labels produced by trained transcribers. Naïve speakers of English, Spanish and French (30 per language) were asked to mark prominent words in excerpts of conversational speech from their native language (between 900-1100 words in each sample). Aggregated prominence scores (P-scores) were compared with experts’ ToBI labels for each language. For all three languages, words ToBI-labelled as accented had substantially higher P-scores than unaccented words, and nuclear accents have higher P-scores than prenuclear ones. P-scores also discriminated among several accent types. Predictions from prior research on the relative prominence of accent labels were tested, and findings confirm that English L+H* accents are more likely to be judged as prominent than H* accents, and Spanish LH* is more likely judged as prominent than L>H*. However, for French, our prediction that Accentual Phrase-initial Hi is prominence-lending was not confirmed. The results establish the link between tonal accents and perceived prominence, and have implications for the typology of phrasal prominence.