Experimental Exploration of Ambisyllabicity in English

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Syllable structure
Onsets and syllable weight

Some theories of the syllable predict that single intervocalic consonants will be ambisyllabic (acting simultaneously as the coda of one syllable and onset of another syllable) in certain contexts. However, these predictions are not borne out in experimental data. Previous research has found that ambisyllabicity occurs in some theoretically predicted contexts, but not others. This research looks at whether syllable onsets can be used to predict ambisyllabicity in an experimental setting. With recent research suggesting that onsets may contribute to syllable weight it is expected that variability in onset type will affect syllabification of intervocalic consonants, which is largely dependent to the weight of the preceding syllable. Participants performed a syllable reversal task in response to bisyllabic non-words. Non-word stimuli were used to control for the effects of orthography, morphology and frequency. Results from the first experiment, in which all stimuli had tense vowels, showed a significant relationship between the number of onset consonants and the syllabification response. While the occurrence of ambisyllabicity was low, it was more frequent than expected when stimuli had fewer onset consonants, and vice versa. In order to investigate this further, a second experiment was conducted using stimuli with both tense and lax vowels. Results from the second experiment showed the same significant relationship for stimuli with lax vowels only. As ambisyllabicity is expected to occur in contexts where syllables require codas for additional weight, the results suggest that onsets can also contribute to syllable weight. Overall, the occurrence of ambisyllabic responses was expected to be much higher based on previous research that used real-word stimuli. This indicates that the use of non-words affected participants’ syllabification judgements and demonstrates the important role of lexical effects in phonological tasks.

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John Alderete
Ashley Farris-Trimble
Arts & Social Sciences: Department of Linguistics
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) M.A.