A case for systematic sound symbolism in pragmatics: The role of the first phoneme in question prediction in context


Turn-taking in conversation is a cognitively demanding process that proceeds rapidly due to interlocutors utilizing a range of cues to aid prediction. We set out to test recent claims that content question words sound similar within languages as an adaptation to help listeners predict that a question is about to be asked. We test whether upcoming questions can be predicted based on the first phoneme of a turn and the prior context. We analyze the Switchboard corpus of English by means of a decision tree to test whether /w/ and /h/ are good statistical cues of upcoming questions. Based on the results, we perform a controlled experiment to test whether people really use these cues to recognize questions. In both studies we show that both the initial phoneme and the sequential context help predict questions. This contributes converging evidence that elements of languages adapt to pragmatic pressures applied during conversation.

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