People’s knowledge of phonological universals
Joanne L. Miller, Adam J. Reeves
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Department or Academic Unit
College of Arts and Sciences. Department of Psychology.
Grammatical-universals, Optimality theory, Phonology, Sonority, Syllable
Duration (Phonetics), Prosodic analysis (Linguistics)
Do people have knowledge concerning universal restrictions on the sound structure of language? Optimality Theory (Prince & Smolensky, 1994/2006) predicts that people’s knowledge about phonology includes universal, grammatical restrictions. Such restrictions are active in the grammars of all speakers, irrespective of whether the particular structures occur in one’s language. The present research tests this prediction using the sonority of fricatives (e.g., f) and stops (e.g., p) as a case study.
Past research examined people’s sensitivity to universal constraints on the sonority distance of onset clusters (the co-occurring consonants at the beginning of the syllable, e.g., pl in please). The frequency of onset clusters across languages is constrained: onsets such as pl are more frequent than onsets such as pn, which, are more frequent than onsets such as pt. Least frequent are onsets such as lp. Moreover, if a language allows an infrequent onset to occur, it also tends to allow more frequent ones, but not vice versa. Sonority, an abstract phonological property, can account for these observations. Glides are the most sonorous consonants (e.g., w, y), followed by liquids (e.g., l, r), nasals (e.g., m, n), and obstruents—a group comprising both fricatives (e.g., f, z) and stops (e.g., p, t). The sonority distance between two consonants can be computed with these levels. An onset like pl consists of a large rise in sonority—starting with the less sonorous p and rising to the more sonorous l, pn is a small rise, pt is a sonority plateau, including two consonants from the same level, and lastly lp falls in sonority. Languages vary in their minimum sonority distance. For example, English requires onsets have a large rise (e.g., pl), whereas Russian allows onsets with falling sonority (e.g., lp). But, languages that allow small distances tend to also admit larger ones, whereas languages that allow large distances do not necessarily admit smaller ones (Greenberg, 1978; Berent, Steriade, Lennertz, & Vaknin, 2007). Such cross-linguistic regularities might reflect a universal grammatical constraint that favors onsets with large sonority distance over onsets with smaller sonority distance (e.g., pl > pn > pt > lp; “>” denotes grammatical wellformedness). If this restriction is, in fact, active in the grammars of all speakers, then people should favor better-formed onsets over ill-formed ones even if all onset types are unattested in their language.
Previous experimental results by Berent and colleagues (2007; 2008; 2009) are consistent with this possibility. Berent et al. (2007) demonstrated that English speakers are sensitive to the sonority distance of onset clusters that are absent in English (e.g., pn > pt > lp). Speakers’ sensitivity was inferred from their tendency to systematically misidentify illicit onset clusters. Past research has shown that illicit onsets are often misidentified to conform to native language restrictions (e.g., tla → tela; Pitt, 1998). Berent et al. observed that people’s rate of misidentification is systematically modulated by sonority distance—monosyllables whose onsets comprise small sonority distances are more likely to be misidentified as disyllabic (e.g., lpik → lepik) relative to monosyllables whose onsets comprise larger sonority distances (e.g., pnik). This pattern cannot be attributed to an inability to correctly perceive the phonetic form of the onset (similar results obtain with printed materials; Berent & Lennertz, 2010), nor is it explicable by the statistical properties of the onsets. Accordingly, Berent et al. interpreted such misidentification as evidence for the ill-formedness of onsets with small sonority distances. The finding that misidentification was systematically modulated by the sonority distance of onsets that are all unattested in the speakers’ language further suggests that the grammar includes universal restrictions on sonority distance.
This dissertation extends this past research to investigate whether people possess knowledge of fine-grained distinctions among the sonority levels that are unattested in their language. Specifically, I investigate the whether people encode the putatively universal distinction between the sonority levels of fricatives and stops. Across languages, fricatives and stops differ in their sonority levels. Fricatives (e.g., f) are more sonorous than stops (e.g., p; Dell & Elmedlaoui, 1985). Productive phonological alternations in English, however, do not make this distinction. The present research examines whether English speakers nonetheless consider fricatives more sonorous than stops. To the extent that English speakers are sensitive to this distinction, and this distinction cannot be explained by their linguistic experience, such finding would provide evidence for the universality of the distinction between the sonority levels of fricatives and stops.
The following research infers the sonority levels of fricatives and stops from their sonority distance. If English speakers consider fricatives more sonorous than stops, then the rise in a fricative-nasal onset (e.g., fn) should be smaller than the rise in a stop-nasal one (e.g., pn). Consequently, the sonority distance between fricative-initial onsets with rising (e.g., fn) and level (e.g., fs) sonority should be attenuated relative to the distance between stop-initial onsets with rising (e.g., pn) and level (e.g., pt) sonority. To gauge English speakers’ knowledge of the sonority levels of fricatives and stops, onsets with rising sonority (e.g., fn, pn) were thus compared to matched onsets with level sonority (e.g., fs or pt). Given that English speakers misidentify illformed monosyllables with small sonority distances as disyllabic (Berent et al., 2007), and that the rise in fricative-nasal onsets is smaller than the rise in stop-nasals ones, one would expect the rate of misidentification for rises and plateaus to be more similar for fricative-initial monosyllables compared to stop-initial ones. Therefore, when compared to matched sonority plateaus, stopnasal monosyllables should be identified more accurately than fricative-nasal ones: people should identify them more readily as monosyllables, and more accurately distinguish them from disyllabic counterparts.
Four experiments compared English speakers’ perception of sonority distance in onsets composed of either stops or fricatives. Materials comprised CCVC non-words (e.g., pnik) and their matched disyllabic counterparts (e.g., penik). The critical manipulation concerned two aspects of the monosyllables: 1) the sonority distance of the onset—a small rise (e.g., pn), plateau (e.g., pt), or fall (e.g., lp) and 2) whether the onset comprised a stop (e.g., p) or a fricative (e.g., f). In Experiments 1-2, participants determined if an auditory non-word (e.g., fnik; fenik) had one syllable or two. Monosyllables with a stop-initial onset of rising sonority (e.g., pnik) yielded more accurate responses than stop-initial monosyllables with a sonority plateau (e.g., ptik). In contrast, responses to fricative-initial monosyllables with rising (e.g., fnik) and level (e.g., fsik) sonority did not differ. In Experiment 3, participants determined if a pair of auditory stimuli (e.g., pnik-penik; fnik-fenik) was identical. Non-identical trials with sonority rises elicited faster responses than plateaus given items comprising stop-initial, but not with fricative-initial onsets. These results are consistent with the prediction that the sonority distance between fricative-initial onsets is attenuated relative to stop-initial ones, and consequently, English speakers consider fricatives more sonorous than stops. It is possible, however, that such misidentifications reflect an inability to perceive the phonetic properties of stop-onsets relative to fricative-ones. But, the results from Experiment 4 with printed materials countered this interpretation. In this experiment, people remained sensitive to the sonority level of the onset—a stop or a fricative—even when presented with printed monosyllables, inputs that carry no phonetic information. In particular, the identification of printed stop-initial items was modulated by sonority distance, whereas no such effect was observed for fricative-initial ones.
Overall, the results are consistent with the prediction that English speakers consider fricatives more sonorous than stops. If the ranking of the sonority levels of fricatives and stops cannot be learned from experience in English, then the English findings would suggest that speakers universally represent fricatives as more sonorous than stops. To gauge universality, additional analyses examined evidence for the distinction between fricatives and stops in the English lexicon. The results showed that the sonority distinction between fricatives and stops cannot be captured by the co-occurrence of features in English, as performance was selectively modulated by sonority-relevant distinctions. Specifically, people were indifferent to the cooccurrence of features irrelevant to sonority (e.g., place), but sensitive to the co-occurrence of features relevant to sonority (e.g., manner). Nonetheless, the English results do not necessarily require that the ranking of the sonority levels of fricatives and stops be universally specified. Additional analyses showed that, if the grammar was equipped with substantive knowledge related to sonority (including knowledge that sonorants are more sonorous than obstruents, knowledge that obstruents comprise both fricatives and stops, and a preference for onsets with large sonority distances), then English speakers could potentially use their lexical experience to infer that fricatives are more sonorous than stops. While the ranking of these sonority levels could be learned, such inference presupposes knowledge that fricatives and stops comprise different sonority levels, and such knowledge appears to be unlearnable from lexical experience. Thus, while the English results cannot inform the origins of the ranking of fricatives as more sonorous than stops, they do suggest that distinction between their sonority levels might be universal.
Tracy Jordan Lennertz
Lennertz, Tracy Jordan, "People’s knowledge of phonological universals: evidence from fricatives and stops" (2010). Psychology Dissertations. Paper 14. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/d20000238
Click button above to open, or right-click to save.