Prosodic mitigation characterizes Catalan formal speech: The Frequency Code reassessed

Iris Hübscher, Joan Borràs-Comes, Pilar Prieto

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23 Citations (Scopus)


© 2017 Elsevier Ltd Research in the past few decades has claimed that high or rising fundamental frequency (F0) signals a set of meanings related to the expression of politeness (e.g., deference, submission or lack of confidence (Gussenhoven, 2004; Ohala, 1984)). In this regard, the Frequency Code has been proposed to explain the universal tendency for high pitch to be interpreted as related to politeness and other sociopragmatic meanings (Gussenhoven, 2004; Gussenhoven, Chen, & Rietveld, 2002; Ohala, 1984). Recently, however, some experimental research has questioned the universality of the Frequency Code and pointed to the importance of taking other prosodic parameters into account (e.g., Brown & Levinson, 1987; Grawunder, Oertel, & Schwarze, 2014; Winter & Grawunder, 2012). Clearly, further work is needed before the question of universal tendencies in the prosodic encoding of politeness can be conclusively settled. The present study attempts to help fill that gap. Twenty Catalan speakers participated in an oral discourse elicitation task designed to investigate the prosodic components of politeness in requests in formal register speech compared to informal speech by not only analysing F0 parameters but also taking into account other prosodic parameters such as duration, voice quality and intensity, and controlling for the use of phonological intonational patterns. Results showed that subjects exhibited a slower speech rate, a lower mean pitch, less intensity, less shimmer and less jitter and an increase in H1–H2 in the formal condition. Thus, contrary to previous claims, the Frequency Code appears not to hold for this language. Rather, our results support the idea that Catalan speakers use a phonetic mitigation strategy involving various prosodic correlates. After comparing our findings with the results reported in previous literature for other languages, we entertain the hypothesis that prosodic mitigation may well play a strong role in marking politeness cross-linguistically.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-159
JournalJournal of Phonetics
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017


  • Frequency Code
  • Politeness
  • Prosodic mitigation
  • Prosody


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