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Commitment and engagement : the role of intonation in deriving speech acts Heim, Johannes M.


This dissertation provides the ingredients to solving a long-standing problem in linguistics: What is the relation between the form of an utterance (clause type) and its function (speech act)? I argue that intonation is a key to solve this Speech Act Problem. Speech acts need to be decomposed into two conversational variables, which are encoded by the shape of the sentence-final contour in North-American English – specifically, its excursion and its duration. Speaker Commitment, the first variable, captures the degree to which the speaker publicly commits to the truth of a proposition. Addressee Engagement, the second variable, captures the degree to which the speaker engages the addressee to resolve any issue under negotiation. My analysis overcomes a traditional divide between those accounts that focus on propositional attitudes and those that focus signaling in/completeness with sentence-final intonation. Both functions are incorporated in my analysis. Furthermore, my account can model similarities of speech acts across different clause types. Chapter 1 introduces the speech act problem and surveys existing solutions. Chapter 2 reviews problems created by analyzing intonation as a modifier of a clause-type-based notion of speech acts and by neglecting the rich variation in form and function of sentence-final intonation. Chapter 3 lays out my own proposal by motivating and explicating the variables of Commitment and Engagement. Chapter 4 provides empirical evidence for an intonational encoding of these variables. Chapter 5 uses the ingredients of this proposal to model several speech acts and their intonational variation. Chapter 6 concludes and points to areas of future research. Overall, this provides us with a new typology of speech acts which is grounded in how the speaker and the addressee relate to the propositional content of an utterance. Empirically, I demonstrate that speech acts express fine-graded attitudes and intentions by the shape of the sentence-final contour. Analytically, I demonstrate that intonation encodes two independent variables that capture the conversational properties of several different speech acts. Theoretically, I demonstrate that speech acts are epiphenomenal at the most basic level: even questions and assertions need to be decomposed into their degrees of Commitment and Engagement.

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