Skip to main content Accessibility help

Pragmatic inferences in context: learning to interpret contrastive prosody*



Can preschoolers make pragmatic inferences based on the intonation of an utterance? Previous work has found that young children appear to ignore intonational meanings and come to understand contrastive intonation contours only after age six. We show that four-year-olds succeed in interpreting an English utterance, such as “It LOOKS like a zebra”, to derive a conversational implicature, namely [but it isn't one], as long as they can access a semantically stronger alternative, in this case “It's a zebra”. We propose that children arrive at the implicature by comparing such contextually provided alternatives. Contextually leveraged inferences generalize across speakers and contexts, and thus drive the acquisition of intonational meanings. Our findings show that four-year-olds and adults are able to bootstrap their interpretation of the contrast-marking intonation by taking into account alternative utterances produced in the same context.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Chigusa Kurumada, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, 304 Meliora Hall, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627-0268. e-mail:


Hide All

Thanks to Sarah Bibyk, T. Florian Jaeger, Michael K. Tanenhaus, the HLP and Kurumada-Tanenhaus Labs for helpful feedback and advice; to Olga Nikolayeva, the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University, the Rochester Baby Lab, and the Children's School at University of Rochester Medical Center for help in subject testing. This research was funded by a Stanford Graduate Fellowship and a JSPS Post Doctoral Research Fellowship awarded to CK, and by an award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH R01 #HD27206) to Michael K. Tanenhaus (University of Rochester).



Hide All
Aguert, M., Laval, V., Le Bigot, L. & Bernicot, J. (2010). Understanding expressive speech acts: the role of prosody and situational context in French-speaking 5- to 9-year-olds. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 53, 1629–41.
Armstrong, M. E. (2014). Child comprehension of intonationally-encoded disbelief. In Orman, W. & Valleau, M. J. (eds), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 2538. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Arnold, J. (2008). THE BACON not the bacon: how children and adults understand accented and unaccented noun phrases. Cognition 108, 6999.
Barner, D., Brooks, N. & Bale, A. (2011). Accessing the unsaid: the role of scalar alternatives in children's pragmatic inference. Cognition 118, 8493.
Beckman, M. E. & Ayers, G. E. (1997). Guidelines for ToBI labelling, version 3.0. Manuscript and accompanying speech materials, Ohio State University. Online: <>.
Beckman, M. E., Hirschberg, J. & Shattuck-Hufnagel, S. (2005). The original ToBI system and the evolution of the ToBI framework. In Jun, S.-A. (ed.), Prosodic typology: the phonology of intonation and phrasing, 954. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Büring, D. & Gutiérrez-Bravo, R. (2001). Focus-related constituent order variation without the NSR: a prosody-based crosslinguistic analysis. In McCloskey, J. (ed.), SASC 3: Syntax and Semantics at Santa Cruz (pp. 4158). Santa Cruz, CA: Linguistics Research Center, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Capelli, C. A., Nakagawa, N. & Madden, C. M. (1990). How children understand sarcasm: the role of context and intonation. Child Development 61, 1824–41.
Carey, S. (1978). The child as word learner. In Halle, M., Bresnan, J. & Miller, G. A. (eds), Linguistic theory and psychological reality, 264–93. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Carey, S. & Bartlett, E. (1978). Acquiring a single new word. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 15, 1729.
Casillas, M. & Amaral, P. (2011). Learning cues to category membership: patterns in children's acquisition of hedges. In Cathcart, C., Chen, I.-H., Finley, G., Kang, S., Sandy, C. S. & Stickles, E. (Eds.), Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 37th Annual Meeting 37(1), 3345. Available from Linguistic Society of America, eLanguage platform. Online: <>.
Chierchia, G., Crain, S., Guasti, M. T., Gualmini, A. & Meroni, L. (2006). The acquisition of disjunction: evidence for a grammatical view of scalar implicatures. In Do, A. H.-J., Dominguez, L.. & Johansen, A. (eds), Proceedings of the 25th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 157–68. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Clark, E. V. (1990). On the pragmatics of contrast. Journal of Child Language 17, 417–31.
Clark, E. V. & Wong, A. (2002). Pragmatic directions about language use: words and word meanings. Language in Society 31, 181212.
Cruttenden, A. (1985). Intonation comprehension in ten-year-olds. Journal of Child Language 12, 643–61.
Cutler, A. & Swinney, D. A. (1987). Prosody and the development of comprehension. Journal of Child Language 14, 145–67.
Dennison, H. Y. (2010). Processing implied meaning through contrastive prosody. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Dennison, H. Y. & Schafer, A. J. (2010). Online construction of implicature through contrastive prosody. Proceedings of Speech Prosody 2010. Online: <>.
Fernald, A. (1985). Four-month-old infants prefer to listen to motherese. Infant Behavior and Development 8, 181–95.
Gelman, A. & Hill, J. (2006). Data analysis using regression and multilevel/hierarchical models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goodman, J. C., McDonough, L. & Brown, N. B. (1998). The role of semantic context and memory in the acquisition of novel nouns. Child Development 69, 1330–44.
Graham, S. A., Sedivy, J. & Khu, M. (2013). That's not what you said earlier: preschoolers expect partners to be referentially consistent. Journal of Child Language 41, 117.
Grassmann, S. & Tomasello, M. (2007). Two-year-olds use primary sentence accent to learn new words. Journal of Child Language 34, 677–87.
Grassmann, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Prosodic stress on a word directs 24-month-olds’ attention to a contextually new referent. Journal of Pragmatics 42, 3098–105.
Grice, P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Cole, P. & Morgan, J. (eds), Syntax and semantics, vol.3, 4158. New York: Academic Press.
Hansen, M. B. & Markman, E. M. (2005). Appearance questions can be misleading: a discourse-based account of the appearance–reality problem. Cognitive Psychology 50, 233–63.
Heeren, W. F., Bibyk, S. A., Gunlogson, C. & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2015). Asking or telling: real-time processing of prosodically distinguished questions and statements. Language and Speech 58(4), 474501.
Hornby, P. A. & Hass, W. A. (1970). Use of contrastive stress by preschool children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 13(2), 395–9.
Horowitz, A. & Frank, M. C. (2012). Learning from speaker word choice by assuming adjectives are informative. In Miyake, N., Peebles, D. & Cooper, R. P. (eds), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 473–8. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Horowitz, A. & Frank, M. C. (2014). Preschoolers infer contrast from adjectives if they can access lexical alternatives. In Bello, P., Guarini, M., McShane, M. & Scassellati, B. (eds), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 625–30. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Horst, J. S. & Samuelson, L. (2008). Fast mapping but poor retention in 24-month-old infants. Infancy 13, 128–57.
Ito, K. (2014). Children's pragmatic use of prosodic prominence. In Matthews, D. (ed.), Pragmatic development in first language acquisition, 199218. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Ito, K., Bibyk, S. A., Wagner, L. & Speer, S. R. (2012). Interpretation of contrastive pitch accent in six- to eleven-year-old English-speaking children (and adults). Journal of Child Language 41, 127.
Ito, K., Jincho, N., Minai, U., Yamane, N. & Mazuka, R. (2012). Intonation facilitates contrast resolution: evidence from Japanese adults and 6-year-olds. Journal of Memory and Language 66, 265–84.
Jun, S.-A. (2005). Prosodic typology: the phonology of intonation and phrasing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jun, S.-A. (2014) Prosodic typology II: the phonology of intonation and phrasing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kurumada, C., Brown, M., Bibyk, S., Pontillo, D. & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2014). Is it or isn't it: listeners make rapid use of prosody to infer speaker meanings. Cognition 133, 335–42.
Kurumada, C., Brown, M. & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2012). Pragmatic interpretation of contrastive prosody: it looks like speech adaptation. In Miyake, N., Peebles, D. & Cooper, R. P. (eds), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 647–52. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Ladd, D. R. (2008). Intonational phonology, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Markman, E. M. & Wachtel, G. F. (1988). Children's use of mutual exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words. Cognitive Psychology 20, 121–57.
Matthews, D., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2010). What's in a manner of speaking? Children's sensitivity to partner-specific referential precedents. Developmental Psychology 46, 749–60.
Mervis, C. B. & Bertrand, J. (1994). Acquisition of the novel name/nameless category (N3C) principle. Child Development 65, 1646–62.
Morgan, J. & Demuth, K. (1996). Signal to syntax: bootstrapping from speech to grammar in early acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Morton, J. B. & Trehub, S. E. (2001). Children's understanding of emotion in speech. Child Development 72, 834–43.
Musolino, J. (2006). On the semantics of the subset principle. Language Learning and Development 2, 195218.
Musolino, J. & Lidz, J. (2006). Why children aren't universally successful with quantification. Linguistics 44, 817–52.
Noveck, I. (2001). When children are more logical than adults. Cognition 78, 165–88.
Papafragou, A. (2006). From scalar semantics to implicature: children's interpretation of aspectuals. Journal of Child Language 33, 721–57.
Papafragou, A. & Musolino, J. (2003). Scalar implicatures: experiments at the semantics–pragmatics interface. Cognition, 86 253282.
Papafragou, A. & Tantalou, N. (2004). Children's computation of implicatures. Language Acquisition 12, 7182.
Pierrehumbert, J. & Hirschberg, J. (1990). The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In Cohen, P. R., Morgan, J. & Pollack, M. E. (eds), Intentions in communication, 271311. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Quam, C. & Swingley, D. (2012). Development in children's interpretation of pitch cues to emotions. Child Development 83, 236–50.
Sakkalou, E. & Gattis, M. L. (2012). Infants infer intentions from prosody. Cognitive Development 27, 116.
Sekerina, I. A. & Trueswell, J. C. (2012). Interactive processing of contrastive expressions by Russian children. First Language 32, 6387.
Silverman, K., Beckman, M., Pitrelli, J., Ostendorf, M., Wightman, C., Price, P., Pierrehumbert, J., and Hirschberg, J. (1992). TOBI: a Standard for labeling English prosody. Proceedings of the 1992 International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, Vol. 2, 867–70. Banff, Canada.
Snedeker, J. & Trueswell, J. C. (2004). The developing constraints on parsing decisions: the role of lexical-biases and referential scenes in child and adult sentence processing. Cognitive Psychology 49, 238–99.
Solan, L. (1980). Contrastive stress and children's interpretation of pronouns. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 23, 688–98.
Speer, S. R. & Ito, K. (2009). Prosody in first language acquisition: acquiring intonation as a tool to organize information in conversation. Language and Linguistics Compass 3, 90110.
Stiller, A., Goodman, N. D. & Frank, M. C. (2015). Ad-hoc implicature in preschool children. Language, Learning, and Development 11, 176–90.
Thorson, J. C. & Morgan, J. L. (2015). Acoustic correlates of information structure in child and adult speech. In Grillo, E. & Jepson, K. (eds), Proceedings of the 39th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 411–23. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Vallduví, E. (1992). The informational component. New York: Garland Press.
Van Der Meulen, S., Janssen, P. & Den Os, E. (1997). Prosodic abilities in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Communication Disorders 30(3), 155–69.
Wells, B., Peppe, S. & Goulandris, N. (2004). Intonation development from five to thirteen. Journal of Child Language 31, 749–78.
Wieman, L. A. (1976). Stress patterns of early child language. Journal of Child Language 3, 283–6.
Wilkinson, K. M. & Mazzitelli, K. (2003). The effect of ‘missing’ information on children's retention of fast-mapped labels. Journal of Child Language 30, 4773.
Winner, E. & Leekam, S. (1991). Distinguishing irony from deception: understanding the speaker's second-order intention. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 9(2), 257–70.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed