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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01985

Priming effects of focus in Mandarin Chinese

  • 1Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Psycholinguistic research has long established that focus-marked words have a processing advantage over other words in an utterance, e.g. they are recognised more quickly and remembered better. More recently, studies have shown that listeners infer contextual alternatives to a focused word in a spoken utterance, when marked with a contrastive accent, even when the alternatives are not explicitly mentioned in the discourse. This has been shown by strengthened priming of contextual alternatives to the word, but not other noncontrastive semantic associates, when it is contrastively accented, e.g. after hearing ``The {\em customer} opened the window", {\em salesman} is strongly primed, but not {\em product}. This is consistent with Rooth's (1992) theory that \deleted{the focus is not only the most informative part of an utterance, but also that} focus-marking signals the presence of alternatives to the focus.
However, almost all of the research carried out in this area has been on Germanic languages. Further, most of this work has looked only at one kind of focus-marking, by contrastive accenting (prosody). This paper reports on a cross-modal lexical priming study in Mandarin Chinese, looking at whether focus-marking heightens activation, i.e. priming, of words and their alternatives. Two kinds of focus-marking were investigated: prosodic and syntactic. Prosodic prominence is an important means of focus-marking in Chinese, however, it is realised through pitch range expansion, rather than accenting. The results showed that focus\added{ed} words, as well as their alternatives, were primed when the subject prime word carried contrastive prosodic prominence. Syntactic focus-marking, however, did not enhance priming of focused words or their alternatives. Noncontrastive semantic associates were not primed with either kind of focus-marking. These results extend previous findings on focus and alternative priming for the first time to Chinese. They also suggest that the processing advantages of focus, including priming alternatives, are particularly related to prosodic prominence, at least in Chinese and Germanic languages. This research sheds light on what linguistic mechanisms listeners use to identify important information, generate alternatives and understand implicature necessary for successful communication.

Keywords: alternatives, contrast, focus, syntax, Prosody, Mandarin Chinese

Received: 23 Dec 2018; Accepted: 13 Aug 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Yan and Calhoun. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Miss. Mengzhu Yan, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand, mengzhu.yan@vuw.ac.nz