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Journal of Phonetics

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Statistical distributions of phonetic variants in spoken language influence speech perception for both language learners and mature users. We theorized that patterns of phonetic variant processing of consonants demonstrated by adults might stem in part from patterns of early exposure to statistics of phonetic variants in infant-directed (ID) speech. In particular, we hypothesized that ID speech might involve greater proportions of canonical /t/ pronunciations compared to adult-directed (AD) speech in at least some phonological contexts. This possibility was tested using a corpus of spontaneous speech of mothers speaking to other adults, or to their typically-developing infant. Tokens of word-final alveolar stops – including /t/, /d/, and the nasal stop /n/ – were examined in assimilable contexts (i.e., those followed by a word-initial labial and/or velar); these were classified as canonical, assimilated, deleted, or glottalized. Results confirmed that there were significantly more canonical pronunciations in assimilable contexts in ID compared with AD speech, an effect which was driven by the phoneme /t/. These findings suggest that at least in phonological contexts involving possible assimilation, children are exposed to more canonical /t/ variant pronunciations than adults are. This raises the possibility that perceptual processing of canonical /t/ may be partly attributable to exposure to canonical /t/ variants in ID speech. Results support the need for further research into how statistics of variant pronunciations in early language input may shape speech processing across the lifespan.


This article was originally published in Journal of Phonetics, 2019, Volume 75.