Decoding intonational meaning is affected by individual cognitive differences: the role of empathy


Mariapaola D’Imperio

Rutgers University, Linguistics Department and Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS)


Recent studies on intonational variability have unveiled that both group- and speaker-specific strategies are employed at the level of pragmatic meaning encoding. Some of this work has, for instance, shown that both regional and gender related priming can affect the way this mapping is actually implemented.  However, research on the impact of listener’s cognitive differences, and especially pragmatic skills, on decoding intonational meaning is still in its infancy. In this talk I will show the results of two recent studies on the role of pragmatic skills on recovering intonational meaning. I will first briefly show the results of an Eyetracking study on processing French intonation to disambiguate homophonous items, showing the impact of Empathy Quotient (EQ) on recovering contrastive meaning (Esteve-Gibert et al. 2020). I will then present an offline perception experiment in which the role of pitch level within the nuclear contour of polar questions is tested as a predictor of degree of epistemic bias in a Southern variety of Italian, i.e. Salerno Italian (Orrico & D’Imperio 2020). Here, two independent sources of individual variability were uncovered: Listeners’ prolonged exposure to either a different language or variety and Empathy Quotient. Specifically, listeners' EQ is shown to have a complex interaction with both boundary tone level interpretation and the way listeners are affected by exposure to a different intonation system. I will then discuss the results in terms of viable theoretical models of intonational meaning decoding.