Homophony and morphology: The acoustics of word-final S in English

Ingo Plag, Julia Homann, Gero Kunter

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Recent research has shown that homophonous lexemes show systematic phonetic differences (e.g. Gahl 2008, Drager 2011), with important consequences for models of speech production such as Levelt et al. (1999). These findings also pose the question of whether similar differences hold for allegedly homophonous affixes (instead of free lexemes). Earlier experimental research found some evidence that morphemic and non-morphemic sounds may differ acoustically (Walsh & Parker 1983, Losiewicz 1992). This paper investigates this question by analyzing the phonetic realization of non-morphemic /s/ and /z/, and of six different English /s/ and /z/ morphemes (plural, genitive, genitive-plural and 3rd person singular, as well as cliticized forms of has and is). The analysis is based on more than 600 tokens extracted from conversational speech (Buckeye Corpus, Pitt et al. 2007). Two important results emerge. First, there are significant differences in acoustic duration between some morphemic /s/’s and /z/’s and non-morphemic /s/ and /z/, respectively. Second, there are significant differences in duration between some of the morphemes. These findings challenge standard assumptions in morphological theory, lexical phonology and models of speech production.

Journal of Linguistics