The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 9/29 - Peter Graff

Speaker: Peter Graff
Title: Perceptual Dispersion in the Lexicon
Time: Thursday, Sept. 29, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

We explore the hypothesis that the global organization of the lexicon maximizes the perceptual distinctness of words, by preferentially relying on highly perceptible contrasts, even when the phonotactics of the language permit less perceptible ones. We predict that distinctions among words will predominantly rely either on few highly perceptible contrasts (e.g. /t?n/ vs. /k?n/ with a place contrast in prevocalic position) or on many globally distributed contrasts, with multiple differences keeping the words apart (e.g. /s?ts/ vs. /??ks/ with a postvocalic place contrast further disambiguated by other differences). We present evidence for this hypothesis from a study investigating the typology of minimal pairs in 58 languages and a study relating the frequency of English minimal pairs to patterns of perceptual confusion. These results evidence a link between distinctness of words in the lexicon and the perception of speech as indicated by the significant effect of perceptibility beyond the phonotactic control variables. They suggest that the lexicon preferentially assigns minimal pairs for any feature to contexts where that feature is better perceived. We discuss implications of these findings for competing theories of the relation between perceptual distinctiveness and phonological patterns (e.g. Ohala 1981, Steriade 2001, Blevins 2004, Hayes and Steriade 2004).