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Empirical investigations into the perceptual and articulatory origins of cross-linguistic asymmetries in place assimilation

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Winters, S. J. (2003). Empirical investigations into the perceptual and articulatory origins of cross-linguistic asymmetries in place assimilation. PhD Thesis, Ohio State Univ., Columbus.

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Some researchers have claimed that nasals are cross-linguistically more likely than stops to undergo place assimilaton because they have weaker perceptual cues to their place of articulation. This dissertation investigates this hypothesis by testing perceptual differences between speakers of English and Dutch, two languages which have different assimilatory patterns with respect to nasals and stops. The first perception experiment involves a magnitude estimation task, which requires Dutch and English listeners to make subjective estimates of the differences between nasals and stops of various places of articulation in VC syllables. The results of this study show that release burst cues significantly increase the estimated magnitudes of differences in stops over nasals, but that stops without these cues do not have a perceptual advantage over nasals. A second experiment, testing the perception of place in VCCV sequences in an AX discrimination task, yielded similar results to the first. A subsequent production experiment tested the possible relevance of stop release burst cues to perceptual influences on the stop/nasal asymmetry in place assimilation. The results of this study showed that stops did have release bursts more often in this context than nasals, for speakers of both languages. Re-interpreting the data from the previous perception experiments indicates the proportion of bursts in the two languages is not great enough to give stops a consistent perceptual advantage over nasals. A final experiment tests the hypothesis that articulatory constraints might motivate nasals to undergo place assimilation more often than stops. To test this hypothesis, Dutch and English speakers attempted to reproduce the VCCV stimuli from the AX discrimination experiment. The results of this study show that speakers of both languages exhibited less accuracy in reproducing nasals than stops, suggesting that articulatory difficulties might motivate nasals’ cross-linguistic susceptibility to place assimilation. This dissertation concludes by investigating how the frequency of particular places of articulation in English and Dutch could determine the targets of place assimilation in those languages. The results of this analysis suggest that cross-linguistic patterns in place assimilation are best understood as the product of various phonetic factors on the structure of phonology.