Mind, Technology, and Society Talk Series

Rachel Walker
Professor, University of Southern California
Time/Date: 3-4:30 p.m. Monday, November 9, 2015

Willow Room, COB-322 **please note special location**

The organization of liquid consonants ‘r’ and ‘l’ in syllables: An articulatory view using real-time MRI


Many languages show restrictions on sequences of vowels and consonants in a syllable. In phonological theory, language-specific templates that delineate the maximal size of syllables have been proposed as a source of explanation. However, liquid consonants, ‘r’ and ‘l’, often show distributional restrictions that appear to escape the predictions of these templates. This talk, based on joint work with Michael Proctor, reports on a study of American English that investigates the special behavior of liquid consonants using real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a technique that shows how speech organ movements unfold over time.

The syllable template for English has been proposed to permit a maximum of three abstract timing units in the rhyme, where the rhyme consists of a syllable’s vowel and any following consonants. Most consonants contribute one timing unit, while vowels contribute one timing unit if they are short and two if long. While this template obtains many systematic distributional patterns, several restrictions on the content of syllables with a post-vocalic liquid consonant remain puzzling. We show that several of the problems are resolved if ‘r’ is represented as contributing two timing units, while ‘l’ contributes two timing units in certain contexts only. These characteristics are suggested to be connected to English liquids’ complex composition: they involve at least two speech constriction actions, and these constrictions are realized sequentially in the syllable rhyme. In addition, the real-time MRI data reveals that restrictions on vowels before ‘r’ favor vowels that are most similar to ‘r in shaping and constriction of the tongue dorsum/root. This study has implications for the representation of consonants and vowels in syllable structure both in terms of temporal overlap and their relationship to timing units.

Suggested reading:

Proctor, Michael and Rachel Walker. 2012. “Articulatory bases of sonority in English liquids.” The Sonority Controversy, ed. by Steve Parker, pp. 289–316. Berlin: Mouton de Gryuter.

Rachel Walker is a Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include the phonology and phonetics of distributional patterns involving consonants and vowels in the words of a language, with focus on factors of similarity, prosodic prominence, and temporal relations. She is the author of Vowel Patterns in Language, published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. Her website is at http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~rwalker/Walker/Home.html.