Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 13 September 2011 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00182

How linguistic chickens help spot spoken-eggs: phonological constraints on speech identification

Iris Berent1*, Evan Balaban2,3 and Vered Vaknin-Nusbaum4,5
  • 1 Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
  • 2 Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
  • 3 Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, Trieste, Italy
  • 4 Department of Education, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
  • 5 Western Galilee College, Akko, Israel

It has long been known that the identification of aural stimuli as speech is context-dependent (Remez et al., 1981). Here, we demonstrate that the discrimination of speech stimuli from their non-speech transforms is further modulated by their linguistic structure. We gauge the effect of phonological structure on discrimination across different manifestations of well-formedness in two distinct languages. One case examines the restrictions on English syllables (e.g., the well-formed melif vs. ill-formed mlif); another investigates the constraints on Hebrew stems by comparing ill-formed AAB stems (e.g., TiTuG) with well-formed ABB and ABC controls (e.g., GiTuT, MiGuS). In both cases, non-speech stimuli that conform to well-formed structures are harder to discriminate from speech than stimuli that conform to ill-formed structures. Auxiliary experiments rule out alternative acoustic explanations for this phenomenon. In English, we show that acoustic manipulations that mimic the mlif–melif contrast do not impair the classification of non-speech stimuli whose structure is well-formed (i.e., disyllables with phonetically short vs. long tonic vowels). Similarly, non-speech stimuli that are ill-formed in Hebrew present no difficulties to English speakers. Thus, non-speech stimuli are harder to classify only when they are well-formed in the participants’ native language. We conclude that the classification of non-speech stimuli is modulated by their linguistic structure: inputs that support well-formed outputs are more readily classified as speech.

Keywords: phonology, speech, non-speech, well-formedness, phonological theory, modularity, encapsulation

Citation: Berent I, Balaban E and Vaknin-Nusbaum V (2011) How linguistic chickens help spot spoken-eggs: phonological constraints on speech identification. Front. Psychology 2:182. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00182

Received: 29 March 2011; Paper pending published: 11 May 2011;
Accepted: 19 July 2011; Published online: 13 September 2011.

Edited by:

Charles Clifton Jr., University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

Reviewed by:

Chen Yu, Indiana University, USA
Bob McMurray, University of Iowa, USA

Copyright: © 2011 Berent, Balaban and Vaknin-Nusbaum. This is an open-access article subject to a non-exclusive license between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and other Frontiers conditions are complied with.

*Correspondence: Iris Berent, Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, 125 Nightingale Hall, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115-5000, USA. e-mail: i.berent@neu.edu

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