Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

When Overlap Leads to Competition: Effects of Phonological Encoding on Word Duration

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

When Overlap Leads to Competition: Effects of Phonological Encoding on Word Duration

Article excerpt

Published online: 9 April 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract Some accounts of acoustic reduction propose that variation in word duration is a reflection of the speaker's internal production processes, but it is unclear why lengthening within a word benefits planning. The present study examines whether variability in word length is partly attributable to phonological encoding. In an event-description task, speakers produced words with longer durations when the word shared part of its phonology with a previously articulated word than when it did not. More importantly, lengthening was greater when the overlap was word-initial than when it was word-final. These differences in duration are in line with predictions of serial phonological competition models, which claim that words that overlap in onsets create more competition than words that overlap in offsets and are thus more difficult to produce. That word duration is sensitive to differences in production difficulty suggests a link between speakers' duration choices and phonological encoding. We propose that lengthening provides the production system with the necessary processing time to produce a word's sounds.

Keywords Acoustic reduction . Word duration . Processing time

It is well established that speakers lengthen or shorten their utterances depending on context. Words that are new, infrequent, or less predictable tend to be acoustically prominent whereas repeated, frequent, or predictable words are generally shorter and less intelligible (Aylett & Turk, 2004;Bell, Brenier, Gregory, Girand, & Jurafsky, 2009;Fowler& Housum, 1987; Jurafsky, Bell, Gregory, & Raymond, 2001; Lam & Watson, 2010; inter alia). Why such attenuation occurs is still under debate, but explanations can be broadly grouped into two accounts. Communicative accounts suggest that speakers tailor their speech to optimize the acoustic signal for the listener by increasing the intelligibility of words that might otherwise be difficult to comprehend (Aylett & Turk, 2004; Jaeger, 2010). In contrast, production ease accounts argue that repetition reduction is the product of the speaker's internal production system and represents what is easiest for the speakers themselves rather than the listeners' informational needs (Bell et al., 2009; Kahn & Arnold, 2015). Although these two accounts are not incompatible (Galati & Brennan, 2010; Jaeger, 2013), the present study will focus on a prediction specific to the latter account. The goal of this study is to examine whether or not duration differences are partly a reflection of the production processes involved in phonological encoding.

The speech production system is often thought to be characterized by a multistep process during which lexical information is accessed and then individual phonemes associated with that lemma are retrieved (e.g., Levelt, Roelofs, & Meyer, 1999). The phonological representation in turn serves as input for the articulatory system. Production ease accounts argue that the degree of duration reduction on a word is related to the speed and ease of lexical access and retrieval (e.g., Bell et al., 2009; Kahn & Arnold, 2015; Lam & Watson, 2010). Words that are retrieved more quickly are produced with shorter durations. Words that have been previously mentioned may be retrieved more easily because representations at both the lexical and phonological levels are likely to be primed. In contrast, words that are new to the discourse may require more effort to plan because their relative activation levels are lower. Consequently, repeated words will be more reduced than when they are initially mentioned.

However, this work raises a question: Why might lengthening be linked to planning difficulty? Presumably, once articulation has begun, the word's meaning and lemma have already been accessed, so how could lengthening benefit the production system? One possibility is that the lengthening of a word specifically benefits phonological encoding processes that are still ongoing as the word is produced. …

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