The Production and Perception of Prosodic Prominence in Urban Najdi Arabic



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This dissertation addresses prosodic prominence in Urban Najdi Arabic (UNA) in both production and perception. Prior research has revealed systematic differences among spoken varieties of Arabic in terms of prominence marking. Further, recent cross-linguistic research shows evidence that acoustic and non-acoustic factors may influence the perception of prominence. Accordingly, this dissertation examines how and to what extent native UNA speakers prosodically mark prominence in different information structures. Additionally, it investigates the influence of acoustic cues and contextual factors on UNA listeners’ perception of prominence. The production experiment examined how UNA speakers utilize acoustic cues to mark information structure, namely focus, and whether they actively disambiguate lexically and propositionally identical utterances according to discourse requirements. The results show that UNA speakers acoustically distinguished different aspects of information structure. The acoustic correlates associated with this acoustic prominence were duration, maximum intensity, and F0 maximum and F0 range on the stressed syllables of the target words. Speakers used these acoustic cues to disambiguate focus location, focus status, focus size, and focus type. However, speakers did not overwhelmingly distinguish between ambiguous sentences in contrastive and noncontrastive conditions. The first perception experiment examined how well can listeners perceive acoustic prominence from the speech signal alone. Using data from the production experiment, listeners rated the prominence of sentences by providing prominence ratings for each word on a 5-point rating scale. In this bottom-up design, listeners did not have access to information other than what is in the speech signal. The results show that listeners were highly successful in perceiving prominence based on the speech signal alone. The perceived prominence ratings were in line with the production’s findings, in that listeners’ ratings of the different aspects of information structure reflected the patterns found in production. The second perception experiment employed a top-down design to examine whether the perception of prosodic prominence is affected by contextual cues. Listeners read a context question and then listened and rated prominence for each word in the answer on a 5-point rating scale. In this highly controlled experiment, the set-up questions and corresponding answers varied in terms of the question-answer congruence. In the congruent question-answer pairs, the answer was prosodically appropriate to the question. In the incongruent question-answer pairs, the answer was prosodically inappropriate to the question. Further, the answers in the incongruent cases were identical after different set-up questions to test the independent effect of context. The findings from the congruent pairs replicated the findings from the bottom-up experiment in that listeners were able to successfully perceive prominence whereby both acoustic and contextual cues complemented each other. The results from the incongruent pairs showed that contextual factors might partially affect the perception of prominence. Specifically, in some conditions of the incongruent pairs, listeners showed evidence of responding to the contextual cues rather than acoustic cues, as reflected by their prominence ratings. However, the effect of the context seems to be phonologically conditioned by the accent distribution on the answer utterance. Findings from these experiments indicate that the production and perception of prosodic prominence is a multifaceted process that seems to be affected by a combination of acoustic and non-acoustic factors.