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Kinematic patterning of flaps, taps and rhotics in English Derrick, Donald


Psychological researchers have found evidence for speech planning down to the syllable, with some evidence for planning at the level of the phoneme (Levelt, 1989) or feature (Bernhardt and Stemberger, 1998). Speech scientists who examine coarticulation argue for no speech planning (Saltzman and Munhall, 1989), or limited planning (Whalen, 1990). I provide evidence for subphonemic speech planning based on B/M ultrasound to measure tongue shape and motion, identifying four categorical variants of flap/- taps (‘T’) in North American English, [alveolar taps ([ɾ↕]), down-flaps ([ɾ↘]), up-flaps ([ɾ↖]), and postalveolar taps ([ɾ⃡])], and two broad categories of rhotic vowels (‘R’) [tongue tip-up rhotics ([ɻ̩]) and tongue tip-down rhotics ([ɹ̩])], even across repetitions of the same utterance in identical phonetic contexts. I explain the pattern of variation in terms of hypothesized constraints on rapid articulation. These include articulatory conflicts (Gick and Wilson, 2006) between segments that require an articulator to be in two places at once, and the end-state comfort effect (Rosenbaum et al., 1992), where an articulator begins a complex sequence in an awkward position in order to end comfortably. Speakers who can repeat syllables quickly are more likely to avoid articulatory conflicts during normal speech production. Speakers who repeat syllables more slowly produce ‘T’ variants involving fewer changes in motion, sometimes forcing non-rhotic vowels in the middle of ‘T’ sequences to become rhotacized in exchange for canonical vowels at the end. These results provide evidence for planning across syllable, morpheme and word boundaries. Other hypothesized constraints on speech planning such as gravity and tissue elasticity are also examined, and demonstrate a mismatch between the number of distinct articulatory actions and the number of phoneme units in a given speech sequence. The results support a theory of subphonemic speech planning that takes into account potential upcoming articulatory conflicts, a person’s motor skills, and the effects of gravity and elasticity.

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