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What we know about what we have never heard: evidence from perceptual illusions

Iris Berent

Thursday, January 25, 2007, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Florida Atlantic University, Department of Psychology

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Are speakers equipped with grammatical preferences regarding structures that they have never encountered? Optimality Theory (Prince & Smolensky, 1993/2004) postulates the existence of a universal set of grammatical markedness constraints--constraints that express (dis)preferences for certain linguistic structures (e.g., structure A>B). By hypothesis, these constraints form part of the grammars of all speakers, irrespective of whether the structures under consideration (e.g., A, B) are present in their language. The following research tests this hypothesis. As a case study, we examine sonority-related restrictions on onset structure. Linguistic analysis suggests that onsets of rising sonority are preferred (i.e., unmarked relative) to onsets with sonority plateaus, which, in turn, are preferred to onsets of falling sonority (e.g., bnif>bdif>lbif). We examine whether English speakers are sensitive to the markedness of such onsets despite their absence in their lexicon. Speakers�� markedness preferences were inferred from the susceptibility of clusters to perceptual repair. English is known to repair illicit onsets by epenthesis (e.g., bnei-brith��benei-brith, see Davidson, 2006a). Of interest is whether the use of repair is sensitive to markedness. If English speakers are equipped with markedness preferences regarding unattested clusters (e.g., bn>bd>lb), and if markedness triggers repair, then clusters that are universally marked should be more likely to elicit repair. The results of several experiments are consistent with this prediction: Monosyllabic targets including marked onsets are misperceived as disyllabic (e.g., lbif �� lebif). The perceptual illusions of English speakers are inexplicable by several statistical measures of segment-co-occurrence in the English lexicon. Likewise, such misperceptions are not due to stimulus artifacts (the same stimuli are perceived accurately by speakers of Russian--a language that tolerates such clusters), or a failure to encode the phonetic form of the stimulus (similar misperceptions are found even with printed materials). Accordingly, the systematic misperception of universally-dispreferred onsets might reflect their markedness in the grammars of all speakers.

Iris Berent