JCJC - Jeunes chercheuses et jeunes chercheurs

Vowel-less syllables at the interface of phonology, phonetics, and psycholinguistics – SLBL

Submission summary

The syllable is a fundamental unit of prosodic structure which has always been a key concept in linguistics. Current research continues, however, to raise many basic questions concerning the nature of this unit. One reason why the syllable has proved so elusive is in part related to its structure. In the majority of the world languages, the distribution between the nucleus of a syllable (i.e. the obligatory central element in a syllable) and its margins is almost always correlated with the lexical distinction between sonorants (mostly vowels) and obstruents. Tashlhiyt Berber is a very welcome exception. In this language, it is claimed that the entire set of its consonantal inventory may alternate between nuclear and non-nuclear positions, making syllables of the shape [tz], [tf], or [tk] quite common (Dell and Elmedlaoui 1985, 2002, Prince and Smolensky 1993, Clements 1997). The reason why any consonant may act as a syllable peak is that this language allows words without vowels (e.g. [tsskcftstt tftxtstt] 'you dried it and you rolled it') (Ridouane, 2003, forthcoming). The existence of vowel-less syllables raises questions of the utmost theoretical interest, which are bound to provide important results on the organization and malleability of the phonology/phonetics system. Within a Laboratory Phonology approach, we plan to handle issues related to the phonetic manifestation and the psycholinguistic reality of such syllables. We adopt the framework of Articulatory Phonology (Browman and Goldstein 1995) in handling issues on the phonetic manifestation of the syllable, because this framework provides a way of thinking about syllable structure that leads to testable hypotheses. There is also a need for experimental psycholinguistic studies providing metalinguistic data on native spekers' intuitions about the syllable and syllabification. The only sources of evidence for how Tashlhiyt utterances may be represented in listeners' mind in terms of syllables are versification (Dell & Elmedlaoui 2002) and some native phonologists' intuitions (Elmedlaoui, Boukous, Jebbour, Ridouane). Based on various experimental data, the aim of the phonetic studies is to determine how vowel-less syllables and their constituents are related to measurable properties in the acoustic and articulatory domains. More specifically, we would like to determine whether the vowel-less syllables share any physical properties with 'classical' syllables that do have truly vocalic nuclei. We will tackle three issues in this part of the project. First, we aim at settling the status of schwa-like vowels that are sometimes present in the acoustic record of consonantal clusters containing voiced consonants. Second, we aim at determining the phonetic properties as possible cues for the status of the syllable constituents. The general task is to investigate specific acoustic and articulatory dimensions affected depending on the status they hold within a syllable. The third issue is concerned with the temporal relationships between composite gestures within and across syllables. The aim is to determine whether the patterns of coordination observed reflect differences in syllabification. The psycholinguistic part of the project aims at assessing Tashlhiyt listeners' perception of the syllable, using metalinguistic judgments. Three issues will also be tackled in this part of the project. The first issue is related to Tashlhiyt syllabification: where are the syllables? and what are their boundaries? The aim is to determine whether native speakers have a consistent notion of the syllabic structure of Tashlhiyt utterances, and how closely it may fit with a syllabic organization (or segmentation) suggested by phonetic-phonological organization. The second issue is related to syllable internal structure, and the cohesiveness between syllable constituents. The aim is to determine how Tashlhiyt listeners decompose a syllable into subsyllabic constituents. The third issue is related to nucleus assignment in vowel-less syllables. The aim is to determine how native listeners detect and locate syllable nuclei in consonant sequences. Specifically, we would like to determine what could be diagnostic property indicating that a given segment is treated as a syllable nucleus. The general purpose of this project is to make progress in our understanding of the nature of the syllable, through (i) the analysis of an extremely rich inventory of syllable shapes, (ii) the use of various experimental means of investigation, (iii) at the interface of phonology, phonetics, and psycholinguistics, and (iv) within a framework that leads to testable hypotheses. We expect the results to have a significant impact on our understanding of the relationship between phonetic, phonological, and cognitive aspects of human speech.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 44,465 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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