Mind, Technology, and Society Talk Series

Susanne Gahl
Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Time/Date: 3-4:30 p.m. Monday, October 19, 2015

Chancellor’s Conference Room, KL 232

Lexical access, articulation, and perceptual factors in pronunciation variation: When does it matter what words sound like?


One and the same word will sound slightly different every time it is pronounced, even when spoken by one and the same speaker. While it is clear that pronunciation varies, it is far from clear why it does so: Do talkers try to pronounce words clearly that might otherwise be difficult to understand? Does pronunciation variation in spontaneous speech reflect the time course of utterance planning and lexical access? Does it do so in controlled tasks such as single-word naming?

One lexical variable that has played a key role in studies of language production and comprehension is Phonological Neighborhood Density (PND, roughly, the number of words differing from a target word by one phonological segment). It is well established that PND words with many ‘neighbors’ are more difficult to recognize than words with few neighbors, other things being equal (Luce & Pisoni, 1998). Intriguingly, such words have also sometimes been found to be pronounced particularly clearly (e.g. lengthened and/or hyperarticulated; e.g. Munson, 2004; but see Gahl, Yao & Johnson, 2012 and Gahl, 2015). Clear pronunciation of words with many neighbors is often taken as evidence suggesting that effects on production arise because of PND effects on recognition.

In this talk, I discuss the relationship of phonological representations, articulation, and recognition difficulty. I present evidence suggesting that PND effects on pronunciation are not due to perceptual similarity of the target to other words in the lexicon. I discuss the implications of that evidence for explanations of pronunciation variation and for research using pronunciation variation as a means of studying the properties of the language production system.

This talk includes joint work with Julia Strand (Carleton College).

Suggested reading:

Gahl, Susanne and Julia Strand. Accepted manuscript, to appear. Many neighborhoods: Phonological neighborhood density in retrieval, planning, and perception. Journal of Memory & Language.


Susanne Gahl is an Associate Professor in the Dept of Linguistics and the Cognitive Science Program at UC Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. from UCB in 2000 and returned to Berkeley in 2009, after postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois. Her website is http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~gahl/.