Mapping prosody onto meaning – the case of information structure in American English*

Prosody is a central part of human speech, with prosodic modulations of the signal expressing important communicative functions. Yet, the exact mechanisms of how listeners map prosodic aspects of the speech signal onto speaker-intended discourse functions are only poorly understood. Here we present three perception experiments that test the mapping between the prosodic form of a heard utterance and possible information structural categories (here: focus and givenness) determined by a discourse context. Results suggest varying degrees of accuracy dependent on the specific information structure categories that are presented to the listener in the experiment (the target and the competitor). Moreover, listeners are sometimes biased towards or against certain discourse contexts. These biases are compatible with the idea that listeners infer speaker intentions based not only on bottom-up processing of acoustic cues but also on probabilistic knowledge about how likely prosodic forms co-occur with specific discourse contexts.