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Published December 12, 2014 | Version v1
Working paper Open

Syllable count judgments and durations of liquid rimes in English

  • 1. Cornell University


For most monomorphemic words in English, native speakers have robust, consistent intuitions regarding the number of syllables that comprise the word. This observation seems to validate the notion that speakers use syllable-level representations alone in judging the syllable count of a given word. However, there is a small class of words, consisting of a diphthong or high/mid tense vowel nucleus and liquid coda (e.g. pile, pail, pool, fire, fail, fool) for which speakers do not exhibit consistent syllable-count judgments (henceforth “σ-count judgments”). The same variation is not observed with low or lax vowel nuclei, nor with non-liquid sonorant codas. This raises the question of why σ-count judgments are variable only for words with the aforementioned class of rimes. We will subsequently refer to the relevant class of words as “variable-count words”, because of the inconsistency in speakers’ σ-count judgments. While some speakers judge the variable words as comprised of one syllable, others judge them as comprised of two, and still others as more than one, but not quite two syllables.

Previous research (Cohn, 2003; Lavoie & Cohn, 1999) suggests a relation between the phenomenon of variable σ-count intuitions and mora-level representation; specifically, variablecount words can be analyzed as having a trimoraic (“superheavy”) syllable structure. Here we consider two hypotheses regarding this relation. One is an intuition-based hypothesis: variability in σ-count judgments arises from cross-speaker differences in reliance on moraic structure for forming σ-count intuitions. In this hypothesis, all speakers have a trimoraic representation of variable-count words, but some speakers give more importance than others to moraic structure when they form a σ-count intuition. An alternative hypothesis is that variation in σ-count intuitions is attributable to variation in the moraic representations themselves: speakers who judge variable-count words as monosyllables have a bimoraic representation, speakers who judge them as more than one syllable have a trimoraic representation. These two hypotheses posit different origins of cross-speaker variation in σ-count judgments: the intuition-based hypothesis attributes the cause of variation to the process of forming σ-count intuitions, whereas the structurally-based hypothesis attributes the cause of variation to differences in the structural representation itself

Although we have couched the above hypotheses in terms of “moraic” structure, we do so in a generic sense, not implying a commitment to a specific moraic theory. The crucial point is to differentiate between syllable level organization and subsyllabic organization. The hypotheses do not require a commitment to the view that moras are the correct analysis of sub-syllabic structure, nor to any particular instantiation of moraic theory. Rather, we refer to “moraic structure” as structure that organizes segments or gestures within a syllable.

In order to better understand variation in σ-count judgments, we posed the question of whether such variation correlates with how speakers produce variable-count words. Under the intuition-based hypothesis, variation in production is not predicted to correlate with variation in σ-count judgments, because the role of moraic structure in σ-count intuition formation process is independent from its role in production. Under the structurally-based hypothesis, variation in production is predicted to correlate with variation in σ-count judgments. Specifically, speakers who judge variable-count words as monosyllabic (i.e. =1σ) will produce them differently from those who judge them as more than one syllable or as two syllables (i.e. >1σ). We tested these hypotheses with sequential and parallel σ-count judgment and word production tasks, and found support for the structurally-based hypothesis: rime durations of variable-count words produced by speakers with >1σ judgments are longer than those produced by speakers with =1σ judgments.


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