Date of Award

Summer 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Daniel Swingley, PhD


Children acquire consonant and vowel categories by 12 months, but take much longer to learn to interpret perceptible variation. This dissertation considers children’s interpretation of pitch variation. Pitch operates, often simultaneously, at different levels of linguistic structure. English-learning children must disregard pitch at the lexical level—since English is not a tone language—while still attending to pitch for its other functions. Chapters 1 and 5 outline the learning problem and suggest ways children might solve it. Chapter 2 demonstrates that 2.5-year-olds know pitch cannot differentiate words in English. Chapter 3 finds that not until age 4–5 do children correctly interpret pitch cues to emotions. Chapter 4 demonstrates some sensitivity between 2.5 and 5 years to the pitch cue to lexical stress, but continuing difficulties at the older ages. These findings suggest a late trajectory for interpretation of prosodic variation; throughout, I propose explanations for this protracted time-course.

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