The production and perception of sub-phonemic vowel contrasts and the role of the listener in sound change

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In his work on the role of the listener in language change, Ohala (1981) suggests that acoustic byproducts of physiological linguistic processes may sometimes be perceived by listeners as linguistically important information, creating a cycle which may ultimately lead to language change. To explore this issue, we investigated anticipatory vowel-to-vowel coarticulation in English, which previous work has shown can exert influence over as much as three vowels’ distance. The perceptibility of such effects at various distances from the influencing vowel was tested using event-related-potentials (ERP) and behavioral methodologies. Even the longest-distance effects were perceptible to some listeners. This group of listeners also provided production data. While the strongest support for a language-change hypothesis like that discussed here would come from a production-perception correlation, this was not found. However, we argue that even in the absence of such a correlation, the present findings are broadly consistent with such an account.


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