The Given-New Contract in Speech to Infants

Cynthia Fisher, Hisayo Tokura

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examined the interaction of two sets of speaker practices which are useful to listeners-the acoustic reduction of given as opposed to new words in speech and the acoustic and grammatical modifications typical of speech to infants. English-speaking mothers described a puppet show to their 14- month-old infants and to an adult. This task elicited the repeated use of a common set of target words in spontaneous utterances. First- and second-mentioned target words differed in similar ways in infant- and adult-directed speech: Repeated words were shorter, quieter, lower-pitched, and less variable in pitch than first-mentioned words. Repeated words were also placed in less prominent positions relative to other words in the same utterance: That is, they were less likely than new words to be utterance-final, to receive sentence stress, and to occur on an utterance pitch peak. Thus, the attenuation of given information in speech appears insensitive to large differences in the speaker′s view of the listener′s sophistication. We suggest that some of the benefits of the distinction between given and new words might be available to the infant listener: The acoustic difference between given and new words might serve to automatically attract infants′ attention to new words at the expense of background information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)287-310
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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