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The intonation of polar questions in Italian: Where is the rise?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 March 2012

Michelina Savino*
Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Bari, Italy & Institut für Linguistik – Phonetik, Universität zu Köln,


Earlier studies on Standard Italian describe polar questions as being characterised by a terminal rise, as opposed to a terminal fall for statements, where a low/falling accentual movement precedes the terminal part of the contour in both sentence types. The same is generally claimed for the Northern and Central Italian varieties (including Florentine, i.e. the variety from which Standard Italian stems), whereas Southern accents are characterised by an accentual rise followed by a terminal fall, being therefore the primary cue for question in non-terminal position. However, a closer look at the existing literature on regional Italian question intonation reveals that such a geographical distribution of intonational features across Italian accents is not that clear-cut. A reason for this discrepancy might be the different speaking styles – here intended as the broad spontaneous vs. read distinction – of the spoken productions analysed. The aim of this paper is to call into question the claim that a terminal rise preceded by an accentual low/fall is the most widespread intonational feature for marking questioning across Italian accents. The goal is to provide a clearer picture of question intonation in Italian by looking at the distribution of the rise as either on terminal or non-terminal position across a large number of varieties, where speech materials have been elicited with the same methodology, and they are therefore homogeneous with respect to speaking style. Intonation analysis has been carried out on spontaneous yes–no questions extracted from the Map Task dialogues collected in the CLIPS national corpus (Corpora e Lessici di Italiano Parlato e Scritto – Corpora and Lexicons of Spoken and Written Italian) covering 15 varieties of Italian. Results of this analysis on the Northern, Central, and Southern polar questions reveals that the accentual rise prevails, and that the distribution of the rise across varieties is independent of the geography.

Research Article
Copyright © International Phonetic Association 2012

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