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Title: Phonetic biases and systemic effects in the actuation of sound change
Author: Soskuthy, Marton
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2013
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This thesis investigates the role of phonetic biases and systemic effects in the actuation of sound change through computer simulations and experimental methods. Phonetic biases are physiological and psychoacoustic constraints on speech. One example is vowel undershoot: vowels sometimes fail to reach their phonetic targets due to limitations on the speed of the articulators. Phonetic biases are often paralleled by phonological patterns. For instance, many languages exhibit vowel reduction, a phonologised version of undershoot. To account for these parallels, a number of researchers have proposed that phonetic biases are the causal drive behind sound change. Although this proposal seems to solve the problem of actuation, its success is only apparent: while it might be able to explain situations where sound change occurs, it cannot easily explain the lack of sound change, that is, stasis. Since stability in sound systems seems to be the rule rather than the exception, the bias-based approach cannot provide an adequate account of their diachronic development on its own. The problem of bias-based accounts stems from their focus on changes affecting individual sound categories, and their neglect of system-wide interactions. The factors that affect speech production and perception define an adaptive landscape. The development of sound systems follows the topology of this landscape. When only a single category is investigated, it is easy to take an overly simplistic view of this landscape, and assume that phonetic biases are the only relevant factor. It is natural that the predicted outcomes will be simple and deterministic if such an approach is adopted. However, when we look at an entire sound system, other pressures such as contrast maintenance also become relevant, and the range of possible outcomes is much more diverse. Phonetic biases can still skew the adaptive landscape towards themselves, making phonetically natural outcomes more likely. However, their effects will often be countered by other pressures, which means that they will not be satisfied in every case. Sound systems move towards peaks in the adaptive landscape, or local optima, where the different pressures balance each other out. As a result, the system-based approach predicts stability. This stability can be broken by changes in the pressures that define the adaptive landscape. For instance, an increase or a decrease in functional load or a change in lexical distributions can create a situation where the sound system is knocked out of an equilibrium and starts evolving towards a new stable state. In essence, the adaptive landscape can create a moving target for the sound system. This ensures that both stability and change are observed. Therefore, this account makes realistic predictions with respect to the actuation problem. This argument is developed through a series of computer simulations that follow changes in artificial sound systems. All of these simulations are based on four theoretical assumptions: (i) speech production and perception are based on probabilistic category representations; (ii) these category representations are subject to continuous update throughout the lifetime of an individual; (iii) speech production and perception are affected by low-level universal phonetic biases; and (iv) category update is inhibited in cases where too many ambiguous tokens are produced due to category overlap. Special care is taken to anchor each of these assumptions in empirical results from a variety of fields including phonetics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. Moreover, in order to show that the results described above follow directly from these theoretical assumptions and not other aspects of these models, the thesis demonstrates that exemplar and prototype models produce the same dynamics with respect to the observations above, and that the number of speakers in the model also does not have a significant influence on the outcomes. Much of the thesis focuses on rather abstract properties of simulated systems, which are difficult to test in a systematic way. The last chapter complements this by presenting a concrete example, which shows how the simulations can be linked to empirical data. Specifically, I look at the effect of lexical factors on the strength of contextual effects in sound categories, using the example of the voicing effect, whereby vowels are longer before voiced obstruents than they are before voiceless ones. The simulations implemented in this chapter predict a larger effect in cases where a given vowel category occurs equally frequently in voiced and voiceless environments, and a smaller difference where one of the environments dominates the lexical distribution of the vowel. This prediction is borne out in a small cross-linguistic production experiment looking at voicingconditioned vowel length patterns in French, Hungarian and English. Although this is only one of many predictions that fall out of the theory of sound change developed in this thesis, the success of this experiment is a strong indication that the research questions it brings into focus are worth investigating.
Supervisor: Honeybone, Patrick; Kirby, Simon; Kirby, James Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: phonetic biases ; phonetics ; actuation problem ; computational modelling