Saturday, August 07, 2004

Contour contexts

I've been talking to Larry Hyman recently about contour tones. Actually, talking to Larry about tones is not new, but one recent topic is: what is the “optimal” environment for a contour tone? Larry's reasoning goes as follows: a falling tone is optimally perceived between a L and a H (L.HL.H)--that the middle syllable bears a contour is completely unambiguous in such cases. However, L.HL.H sequences are suboptimal from the standpoint of production, since they require the speaker to do lots of glottal acrobatics (two jumps in pitch, and one glide). A H.HL.L sequence is much easier to articulate--optimal from the standpoint of production, since only one pitch modulation is required--but is perceptually quite ambiguous. The question Larry poses is, “Which consideration wins when?”

I have some thoughts on this. It is possible to recast Larry's proposal in Ohalaesque terms. Speakers are likely to misarticulate L.HL.H sequences quite often in ordinary speech, producing perhaps [L.L.H], or [L.H.H] while intending /L.HL.H/. If this happens often enough, listeners are apt to “undercorrect”, assume that this new pattern is the correct one, and thus start producing tokens of this type intentionally.

For sequences of the type H.HL.L, speakers are given lots of room to assume that the contours in correctly produced tokens are the result of timing errors. [H.HL.L] could be either /H.L.L/, with the H lasting longer than the syllable with which it is associated or /H.H.L/, with the final L being anticipated on the preceding syllable. If speakers are aware that lags in tone production are more common than anticipation effects, then we would predict that the first scenario would be more common: intended /H.HL.L/ is hypercorrected as /H.L.L/.

So who wins? Note that neither of the kinds of changes predicted by this model result in an increase in the number of pitch modulations. That is to say, in some sense, that production wins, since misperception is as likely as not to result in articulatorily more optimal forms by reinterpreting contours as timing errors. What if this prediction turns out to be empirically wrong? What if there are, in fact, many cases where tonal alternations add additional transitions just in case they enhance the perceptability of contours? I think this would be important evidence that the substance-free version of phonology that I favor is on the wrong track.


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