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Journal Article

Sparseness of vowel category structure: Evidence from English dialect comparison


Scharinger,  Mathias
Max Planck Research Group Auditory Cognition, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;
Department of Linguistics, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA;

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Scharinger, M., & Idsardi, W. (2014). Sparseness of vowel category structure: Evidence from English dialect comparison. Lingua, 140, 35-51. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2013.11.007.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0014-C5BB-8
Current models of speech perception tend to emphasize either fine-grained acoustic properties or coarse-grained abstract characteristics of speech sounds. We argue for a particular kind of ‘sparse’ vowel representations and provide new evidence that these representations account for the successful access of the corresponding categories. In an auditory semantic priming experiment, American English listeners made lexical decisions on targets (e.g. load) preceded by semantically related primes (e.g. pack). Changes of the prime vowel that crossed a vowel-category boundary (e.g. peck) were not treated as a tolerable variation, as assessed by a lack of priming, although the phonetic categories of the two different vowels considerably overlap in American English. Compared to the outcome of the same experiment with New Zealand English listeners, where such prime variations were tolerated, our experiment supports the view that phonological representations are important in guiding the mapping process from the acoustic signal to an abstract mental representation. Our findings are discussed with regard to current models of speech perception and recent findings from brain imaging research.