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Author Notes:

Correspondence should be addressed to Eva Reinisch, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität München, Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing, Schellingstraße 3, 80799 Munich, Germany. E-mail: eva.reinisch@gmx.net.

We thank Felicia Jackson, Felicia Long, and Hayley Heaton for helping with the preparation of materials, and Lauren Clepper for help with running the experiments. We also thank Patricia Bauer and the Memory at Emory laboratory for the use of the eye tracker.


Research Funding:

The project was funded by a grant of the German Research Foundation (DFG) JE510/2-1 awarded to the first and second authors. This research was also supported in part by National Institutes of Health Research Grant RO1 DC 008108 to Emory University.


  • tone of voice
  • prosody
  • word learning
  • word meaning
  • speech perception

Tone of voice guides word learning in informative referential contexts


Journal Title:

Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology


Volume 66, Number 6


, Pages 1227-1240

Type of Work:

Article | Post-print: After Peer Review


Listeners infer which object in a visual scene a speaker refers to from the systematic variation of the speaker’s tone of voice (ToV). We examined whether ToV also guides word learning. During exposure, participants heard novel adjectives (e.g., “daxen”) spoken with a ToV representing hot, cold, strong, weak, big, or small while viewing picture pairs representing the meaning of the adjective and its antonym (e.g., elephant-ant for big-small). Eye fixations were recorded to monitor referent detection and learning. During test, participants heard the adjectives spoken with a neutral ToV, while selecting referents from familiar and unfamiliar picture pairs. Participants were able to learn the adjectives’ meanings, and, even in the absence of informative ToV, generalise them to new referents. A second experiment addressed whether ToV provides sufficient information to infer the adjectival meaning or needs to operate within a referential context providing information about the relevant semantic dimension. Participants who saw printed versions of the novel words during exposure performed at chance during test. ToV, in conjunction with the referential context, thus serves as a cue to word meaning. ToV establishes relations between labels and referents for listeners to exploit in word learning.

Copyright information:

© 2013 The Experimental Psychology Society

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