Sensitivity to Phonological Universals: The Case of Stops and Fricatives

Abstract

Linguistic evidence suggests that syllables like bdam (with stop–stop clusters) are less preferred than bzam (with stop–fricative combinations). Here, we demonstrate that English speakers manifest similar preferences despite no direct experience with either structure. Experiment 1 elicited syllable count for auditory materials (e.g., does bzam have one syllable or two?); Experiment 2 examined the AX discrimination of auditory stimuli (e.g., is bzam \(=\) bezam?); whereas Experiment 3 repeated this task using printed materials. Results showed that syllables that are dispreferred across languages (e.g., bdam) were prone to misidentification relative to preferred syllables (e.g., bzam). The emergence of this pattern irrespective of stimulus modality—for auditory and printed materials—suggests that misidentification does not solely stem from a phonetic failure. Further, the effect remained significant after controlling for various statistical properties of the materials. These results suggest that speakers possess broad linguistic preferences that extend to syllables they have never encountered before.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The linguistic literature has proposed various sonority scales that differ in detail, ranging from five (Clements 1990) to seventeen levels (Parker 2008). For the sake of simplicity, we follow Selkirk (1984) and Parker (2002) in distinguishing the sonority levels of stops and fricatives, but in other respects, we use the rudimentary sonority scale proposed by Clements (1990). Our analyses disregard complex obstruent affricates (containing a stop and a fricative, e.g., the first sound in Joe) and treat sonority as an ordinal scale.

    Table 1 Sonority scale of speech sounds
  2. 2.

    The restrictions on onset structure can acquire multiple forms—some directly appeal to sonority, whereas others do not (Smolensky 2006). We remain agnostic as to the exact representation of sonority restrictions in the language system—whether sonority is represented as a scalar phonological feature (c.f., Clements 1990) or whether it results from other constraints on feature conjunction (Smolensky 2006). Our question here is whether sonority can be used descriptively, to capture the well-formedness of the onset.

  3. 3.

    Note that such counterexamples would incorrectly suggest that fricatives are less sonorous than stops, as segments allowed in the first onset position are typically more sonorous than their C2 counterparts.

  4. 4.

    In the analysis of response time, the exclusion of trials faster than 200 ms and slower than 2.5 SD of mean response time yielded missing cells. By applying list-wise deletion, 4 participants with missing data were excluded from the subject analyses (N \(=\) 11) and 2 quartets with missing data were excluded from the item analyses (N \(=\) 10).

  5. 5.

    All accuracy results were supported by a mixed-effect logit model, with obstruent type and well-formedness as fixed effects (both sum coded) and subject and quartet as a random effects (R Development Core Team 2011). The results confirmed the effect of sonority distance (\(\upbeta = -1.13, \hbox {SE} = .09, \hbox {Z} = -12.251, p<2^{\mathrm{e}}-16\)) and obstruent type (\(\upbeta = -.36, \hbox {SE} = 0.1, \hbox {Z} = -3.47, p<.0005\)) and no interaction (\(\upbeta = -.008, \hbox {SE} = .09, \hbox {Z} = -.09, p<.93\)). Similar models for disyllabic trials revealed no significant effects or interaction (all \(\upbeta = .22, p = .24\)).

  6. 6.

    In stop-initial items, we defined the beginning of the vowel as the zero-crossing before the change in waveform amplitude and formant structure associated with the vowel, thus excluding stop closure and release. In fricative-initial items, we excluded fricative turbulence preceding the vowel. The end of the vowel was taken to be the zero-crossing before the stop closure and release (if the vowel was followed by a stop) and fricative turbulence (if it was followed by a fricative).

  7. 7.

    The mixed effect logit models on response accuracy did not support the trends observed in ANOVAs (all \({it\ \upbeta } = .08\), p \(=\) .69). In the response time measure, no effects or interactions were significant (all \({ \upbeta } = .11.5\), p \(=\) .25).

  8. 8.

    All accuracy results were supported by mixed-effect logit models (besides the sum coding of two-way contrasts syllable and obstruent type, we used forward difference coding for the three-way contrast sonority distance. Subject and sextet were included as random effects). The 2 syllable \(\times \) 2 obstruent type \(\times \) 3 sonority distance model confirmed yielded a marginal interaction of syllable and sonority distance \((\upbeta = 0.21786,\hbox {SE}=0.13129,\hbox {Z}=1.659,p<.097)\).

  9. 9.

    The mixed-effects 2 obstruent type \(\times \) 3 sonority distance model yielded a marginally significant effect in the identical trials (\(\upbeta = 0.3957\), SE \(=\) 0.2081, Z \(=\) 1.902, \(p<.0572\)), thus confirming the effect we found in the corresponding ANOVA.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 11.

Table 11 Monosyllabic items used in the auditory experiments (Experiments 1 and 2)

Appendix 2

See Table 12.

Table 12 Monosyllabic items used in the printed experiment (Experiment 3)

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Tamási, K., Berent, I. Sensitivity to Phonological Universals: The Case of Stops and Fricatives. J Psycholinguist Res 44, 359–381 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-014-9289-3

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Keywords

  • Phonological-universals
  • Phonology
  • Reading
  • Sonority
  • Optimality-theory