The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics Colloquium 4/13 - Meghan Sumner

Speaker: Meghan Sumner, Stanford University
Date/Time: Friday 4/13, 3:30 PM
Location: 32-141
Title: Effects of indexical variation on the perception and recognition of spoken words within and across accents


As listeners, we face a speech signal that is riddled with variation. We are exposed to words, but a single word is produced differently each time it is uttered. These words stream by listeners at a rate of about 5 – 7 syllables per second, further complicating the listeners’ task. How listeners map a speech signal onto meaning despite massive variation is an issue central to linguistic theory. One problem we currently face is that the vast majority of these different realizations of words are understood equally well by listeners.

While speech is variable, it is also informative. In any window of speech, listeners are presented with cues to sounds, sound patterns, words, speakers and their intentions, emotions, accents and other social characteristics. In this talk, I suggest that in order to understand how listeners take all the individual parts of a word that often vary drastically and understand them as quickly and adeptly as they do, we must understand the influence of these different types of information in speech perception.

In this talk, I begin with an assumption that listeners, by default, use these ever-present cues together. I examine the perception of phonological variants sensitive to typically co-present phonetic and social cues. First, I present data from phoneme categorization tasks designed to examine the effects of different phonological variants across different modes of speech (careful vs. casual). Rather than comparing the responses to words with a frequent phonological variant (e.g., tap) to those with a less frequent member of a variant pair (e.g., [t]) embedded in controlled word-frame, I examine the perception of these variants in phonetic and social contexts in which they are typically heard by listeners. Second, I present data from priming tasks designed to examine the recognition of words with different phonological variants across accents. In this case, I show that an out-of-accent variant results in different behavioral responses dependent on the accent of the speaker. From these data, I argue that many effects attributed to phonological variants are illusory and that the emphasis on the variants hides important patterns linking acoustic variation and social representations.

I suggest that the data from these experiments support a view in which cued social attributes influence perception and recognition at a low-level. This work helps explain effects of phonological variants that are oftentimes conflicting, highlights the effects of social factors independent of the rich lexicon, and has implications for how linguistic units are stored and recalled by listeners.