Prosodic structure in language understanding: evidence from tone sandhi in Mandarin.

Shari R. Speer, Chi Lin Shih, Maria L. Slowiaczek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Two experiments show that prosodic information plays a crucial role in the processing of sentences of Standard Mandarin Chinese, where local lexical ambiguities may occur due to the operation of a tone sandhi rule. In Chinese, each word is associated with a tone; in this paper, the term "Mandarin tone sandhi" refers to a phonological rule that changes the first of two consecutive low tones (Tone 3) to a rising tone (Tone 2). As a result, a two-syllable sequence with a rising tone followed by a low tone is ambiguous. In Experiment 1, listeners identified lexical tones for ambiguous, unambiguous, and nonsense words in phrasal contexts where the tone sandhi rule might have applied. Comparable results in the lexical versus nonsense conditions indicate that judgments did not rely simply on lexically stored tonal information, but also made reference to the tonal context of the phrase. In Experiment 2, subjects chose the most likely written English translation for auditory sentences of Mandarin. Global prosodic information was manipulated to create different levels of "prosodic closeness" between two critical items in a tone sandhi environment, while the syntactic relation between these items was held constant. Results show that listeners relied on the prosodic structure of the phrases to determine whether or not the tone sandhi rule had applied, and consequently to identify individual lexical items. The evidence is taken to support the notion that prosodic structure influences auditory language comprehension processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to) Pt 4/-
JournalLanguage and speech
StatePublished - Oct 1989
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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