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On the universality of intonational phrases: a cross-linguistic interrater study

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 June 2018


This study is concerned with the identifiability of intonational phrase boundaries across familiar and unfamiliar languages. Four annotators segmented a corpus of more than three hours of spontaneous speech into intonational phrases. The corpus included narratives in their native German, but also in three languages of Indonesia unknown to them. The results show significant agreement across the whole corpus, as well as for each subcorpus. We discuss the interpretation of these results, including the hypothesis that it makes sense to distinguish between phonetic and phonological intonational phrases, and that the former are a universal characteristic of speech, allowing listeners to segment speech into intonational phrase-sized units even in unknown languages.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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We are very grateful to four anonymous reviewers for Phonology, the associate editor, Bob Ladd, and the editors for extensive, detailed and constructive comments, questions and suggestions, which have led to major revisions. We also thank the members of the Cologne Phonetics Colloquium for helpful discussion of the first draft of this paper. We owe a very big thanks to the many students and colleagues who participated in the transcription and segmentation of the recordings analysed here.

Authors' contributions: NPH: overall design of study and paper, main author of §1, §2, §6 and §7, final revision of all other sections; MS: contributor to interrater study (including recordings), main administrator of interrater study; JS: statistical analyses, draft of §4 and §5, contributor to interrater study; VU: draft of §3, contributor to interrater study (including recordings). All authors contributed to the consensus version.

Research for this paper was funded by grant 01UG1240A from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) to Nikolaus P. Himmelmann. We are also grateful for funding from the Volkswagen Foundation, which from 2002 to 2016 supported the compilation of the West Papuan corpora used here. See Appendix B for details.

The appendices are available as online supplementary materials at


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