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.
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.
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.
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.
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., dra≻rda) 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.