Tag Archives: Phonology

LingLang Lunch (10/31/2012): Peter Graff (MIT)

Communicative Efficiency in the Lexicon

Some of the earliest as well as some of the most recent work on the role of communicative efficiency in natural language examined the patterning of word-length in the lexicon (Zipf 1949; Piantadosi et al. 2011). Frequent and predictable words tend to be phonologically shorter, while their infrequent and unpredictable counterparts tend to be longer, thus relativizing the articulatory effort invested by the speaker to the probability of her being misunderstood. In this talk, I show that it is not only word-length but also the actual phonological composition of words that facilitates the successful communication of intended messages. I show that the English lexicon is probabilistically organized such that the number of words that rely exclusively on a given contrast for distinctness follows from that contrast’s perceptibility (cf. Miller and Nicely 1955) beyond what is expected from the occurrence frequencies of the contrasting sounds. For example, there are more minimal pairs like pop:shop, which rely on the highly perceptible /p/:/ʃ/ opposition in the English lexicon than expected from the frequencies of /p/ and /ʃ/. Conversely, there are fewer minimal pairs like fought:thought, which rely on the confusable /f/:/θ/ contrast, than expected from the frequencies of /f/ and /θ/. Redundancy in the phonological code is thus not randomly distributed, but exists to supplement imperceptible distinctions between meaningful linguistic units as needed. I also show that English is not unique in this respect: across 60 languages, the perceptibility of a given contrast predicts the extent to which words in the lexicon rely on that contrast for distinctness. I argue that these patterns arise from the fact that speakers choose among words in ways that accommodate anticipated mistransmission (Mahowald et al. to appear) and present computational evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the global optimization of the phonological lexicon could have arisen from the aggregate effects of such word choices over the course of a language’s history (cf. Martin 2007).

LingLang Lunch (11/13/2013): Kevin Ryan (Harvard University)

Prosodic weight beyond the rime

A number of phonological systems invoke weight in some form, including stress placement, poetic meter, compensatory lengthening, end-weight effects in word order, text-setting lyrics to music, and so forth. This talk focuses on two aspects of weight largely neglected in the modeling literature, namely, (1) how exactly phonological weight is computed for prosodic domains above the syllable (such as words and phrases) and (2) statistical contributions of onsets to weight in the aforementioned sorts of systems. Focusing especially on word-order variation in English, I propose a theory of “generalized weight mapping” that connects syllable weight to word and phrase weight, though not through simple addition. I also argue that the domain for weight is not rime-bound, as traditionally assumed, but benchmarked by the perceptual centers of syllables, thus incorporating (universally) certain onset effects into the weight percept.

LingLang Lunch (9/28/2016): Andy Wedel (University of Arizona)

Functional pressure from the lexicon shapes phoneme inventory evolution

A language’s sound system must provide for perceptual contrast between different morphemes in order to communicate meaning distinctions. Here I present evidence that lexical competition induces phonetically specific hyperarticulation of individual words, and that this effect in turn influences long-term change in the system of phonemic contrasts.

Starting at the level of long-term language change, we find that the number of minimal lexical pairs that a phoneme contrast distinguishes strongly predicts whether a change to that phoneme contrast preserves or eliminates lexical distinctions. Specifically, phoneme contrasts that distinguish few minimal pairs are more likely to merge (a change that eliminates lexical distinctions), while those that distinguish many minimal pairs are more likely to participate in chain-shifts or phoneme splits (changes that preserve lexical distinctions).

In one proposed mechanism for this effect, hyperarticulation of phonetic cues distinguishing words creates within-category, ‘cryptic’ variation in phoneme categories, which in turn shapes future patterns of sound change. At the level of usage, this model predicts that we should find hyperarticulation of phonetic cues that provide more information distinguishing their host word from a competitor. In support of this prediction, I show evidence that in a corpus of natural English speech, two distinct types of phonetic cues, voice-onset-time, and vowel-vowel Euclidean distance, are hyperarticulated when they distinguish their host word from a minimal pair competitor (e.g., pat ~ bat). Taken together, these results provide strong converging evidence that hyperarticulation of phonetic cues to lexical meaning in usage indirectly promotes maintenance of a communicatively efficient system of phoneme contrasts over time.

LingLang Lunch (11/16/2016): Uriel Cohen Priva (Brown University)

An interplay between information, duration, and lenition

What are the causal mechanisms that lead to lenition, and why do languages tend to lenite particular segments? Predicting the actuation of lenition should explain why lenition tends to be exceptionless, why it may result in more effortful articulatory production, why it seems to ignore certain merger-avoidance properties that exist elsewhere in language (Wedel, Kaplan, and Jackson 2013), and why different language varieties may be similar in leniting the same segment, but differ in the output (e.g. /t/ to /ʔ/ vs. /t/ to /ɾ/). I propose that all these properties can be explained if we assume that lenition is caused by reduction in duration, and that one of the leading factors in systematic reduction in duration is low segment informativity. I show that low informativity is correlated with shorter duration in American English, above and beyond contextual predictability. I show that cross-linguistically, relative lower informativity of a particular segment matches the languages in which the selective lenition of particular segments occurs. I further show that lenition processes match duration-reduction better than they match undershoot alone, or effort-reduction alone, and that durational reduction occurs in leniting environments even when lenition itself does not happen.

LingLang Lunch Lite (4/18/2018 & 4/25/2018): Masters Presentations: Yiming Gu & Haoru Zhang (Brown University)

On April 18th and April 25th we will hear two Masters thesis presentations from Yiming Gu and Haoru Zhang.

Yiming Gu: Tone Sandhi in Ganyu Mandarin

Tone sandhi in Ganyu, a Mandarin dialect, is relatively complicated. There were only a few descriptive works in existing literature. By using prosodic structure, the thesis provides a uniform explanation to non-focused pitched syllable tone sandhi in Ganyu from the perspective of Optimality Theory. In the analysis, a syllable contains three pitch targets underlyingly, while in the output only two targets are allowed. Phonological phrase and foot are constructed via the ranking of phonosyntactic constraints. Pitch-sensitive constraints which are responsible for each and every sandhi phenomenon are motivated by tonal saliency, metrical integrity, target realizability, and pitch faithfulness. In addition, the thesis proposes a new concept: dependent pitch target. Phonologically-relevant creaky or falsetto sounds, as found in Ganyu and neighboring dialects, are dependent pitch targets which must follow a low or high target, and they are very shot in duration. The analysis covers disyllabic and trisyllabic feet both at the final position of a phonological phrase and at the non-final position. The analysis can be extended to cases which involve focus-stressed syllables and pitch-less syllables in future investigations.

Haoru Zhang: Phonetic Convergence in Mandarin

Phonetic convergence is the phenomenon that speakers’ acoustic and phonetic characteristics increase in similarity with each others’ during communication. This phenomenon has been gaining increasing interest over recent years, and many measures have been claimed to be subjected to convergence, such as fundamental frequency (F0), formants, VOT, duration, etc. The current study contributes to the field by investigating these measures on Mandarin, a tonal language. The results reveal potential differences in sensitivity to convergence across measures, especially among tone-related variables.

LingLang Lunch (4/11/2018): Angela Carpenter (Wellesley College)

Angela Carpenter is Associate Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Wellesley College. Her research has focused on the phonological acquisition of both child language and adult second language, especially the acquisition of stressed syllables and function words in L1 acquisition, and factors that affect acquisition of a second language. For more information, her website is here.

Dialect change in immigrant speakers of Jamaican Creole

The process of dialect change occurs frequently in the world’s languages, as it is one of the results of population migration. Dialect change occurs when speakers of one dialect of a language emigrate to an area where another dialect of the same language is spoken. This type of migration has occurred quite notably across the English-speaking world where, for example, speakers of one version of English, such as Canadian English or Jamaican English move to Great Britain, where British English is spoken (Chambers 1992, Tagliamonte and Molfenter 2007, Wells 1973). In this particular study I am focusing on the dialectal change Jamaican Creole (JC) towards Standard American English (SAE) by Jamaicans who immigrated to the U.S. The phonological aspects of JC that differ from SAE include: 1) vowel merging, such that in JC “black” and “block” are homophones; 2) glide insertion between velar stops and a following low back vowel, such as saying [kjar] ‘kyar’ and not [kar] ‘car’; 3) h-dropping and/or hypercorrection, such as saying [an] for ‘hand’; but [hɛgz] for ‘eggs’; and 4) merging of [ie] and [eə] into [ie] so that in JC ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ are homophones. To fully acquire SAE speakers of JC have to change their phonology towards the American standard. This talk is a preliminary report on dialect change among a group of Jamaicans who have lived in the Northeast U.S. for many years. We analyze to what extent they have acquired SAE.

LingLang Lunch (2/28/2018): Roey Gafter (Ben Gurion University)

Roey Gafter’s main research focuses on sociolinguistic variation in Modern Hebrew, and its wider implications for sociolinguistic theory. For more information, his website is here.

Pharyngeals and beyond: phonetic differences and phonemic mergers in Hebrew

In the speech of most current Hebrew speakers, the phonemic distinction between pharyngeal and non-pharyngeal consonants has been neutralized towards a non-pharyngeal realization. Although this phonemic merger is a well-studied phenomenon, little attention has been given so far to the possibility of phonetic variation beyond a binary distinction between pharyngeal and non-pharyngeal forms. In this talk, I focus on the voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ħ], and demonstrate that the non-pharyngeal realization varies between a fricative and a trill. A phonetic analysis of data from sociolinguistic interviews conducted in two field sites in Israel reveals that the rate of trilling varies among speakers, and is sensitive to both social and linguistic factors. Speakers who do not produce pharyngeals are found to use the trill variant more frequently, but only in one of the two communities studied, in which the overall loss of the pharyngeals is considerably more advanced. I discuss the implications of these findings for understanding the mechanisms underlying the ongoing phonemic merger between pharyngeals and non-pharyngeals.

Richard B. Millward Colloquium (9/13/2017): Iris Berent (Northeastern University)

Iris Berent’s research focuses on the issue of universal constraints in language and how it interacts with reading ability and disability. Her work spans multiple disciplines such as phonology, neurology, as well as developmental issues like language acquisition and dyslexia, and involves various experimental methods like behavioral studies and measures of brain responses. For more information, her website is here.

On the origins of phonology

Why do humans drink and drive, but rarely rdink and rdive? Here, I suggest that these regularities could reflect abstract phonological principles that are active in the minds and brains of all speakers. In support of this hypothesis, I show that (a) people converge on the same phonological preferences (e.g., drarda) even when the relevant structures (e.g., dra, rda) are unattested in their language; and (b) their behavior is inexplicable by purely sensorimotor pressures and experience with similar syllables. Further support for the distinction between phonology and the sensorimotor system is presented by their dissociation in dyslexia, on the one hand, and the transfer of phonological knowledge from speech to sign, on the other. A detailed analysis of the phonological system can elucidate the functional architecture of the typical mind/brain and the etiology of speech and language disorders.