Articulatory Properties Of Saudi Arabic Coronals And Cross-Language Assimilation: The Case Of Saudi Arabic And Seoul Korean Listeners



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The Perceptual Assimilation Model (PAM) (Best, 1995) claims listeners directly perceive articulatory gestures of the vocal tract rather than acoustic/auditory signals. Accordingly, the articulatory similarities and discrepancies between native and non-native sounds determine the perceptual assimilation patterns of non-native sounds. This study provides empirical data to verify PAM’s claims by testing two languages with typologically less common consonants, Saudi Arabic and Seoul Korean. In Saudi Arabic, coronal consonants can be pharyngealized (emphatics) and consonant duration is contrastive (singletons vs. geminates). On the other hand, Seoul Korean has a three-way laryngeal contrast for stops and a two-way fricative contrast for fricatives, and all these consonants are phonemically voiceless. This study investigates cross-language perception in which naïve Saudi Arabic listeners hear Seoul Korean sounds (/th t t* sh s*/) and Seoul Korean listeners hear Saudi Arabic sounds (/t tʕ d s sʕ/ and their geminate counterparts). By doing so, I examine how each group assimilates non-native sounds to their native categories and to what extent articulatory similarities and discrepancies between native and non-native sounds predict the way listeners perceive unfamiliar sounds.This study is composed of one production experiment and two perception experiments. Unlike Seoul Korean, little is known about the articulatory properties of Saudi Arabic sounds. While the understanding of Seoul Korean sounds is based on previous phonetic work on Seoul Korean obstruents (e.g., Kim et al., 2010, among many others), the production experiment in this study aims to understand the articulatory configurations of previously unstudied Saudi Arabic coronal obstruents. As the first step to explore the relationship between articulation and perception, the production experiment investigates the tongue root configuration and its articulatory properties during Saudi Arabic speakers’ productions of coronal obstruents, using ultrasound tongue imaging. As previous studies, on other languages, focus on either voicing or gemination or on either stops or fricatives in initial position, I additionally examine the effect of gemination, voicing, and manner of articulation (stops vs. fricatives, including emphatics) on tongue root configuration when producing intervocalic obstruents, as well as their phonetic properties, such as duration of constriction, voice onset time (VOT), presence and absence of vocal fold vibration, and flanking vowel duration. The articulatory findings indicate that tongue root position is significantly affected by gemination and voicing such that tongue root advancement is observed among voiced and geminate consonants. Manner of articulation does not make a significant difference in tongue root position, with stops and fricatives behaving similarly. In terms of other phonetic measures, the results confirm that Southern Saudi Arabic has contrastive consonant duration in word-medial position, where geminate coronals have a longer constriction duration than singletons. The findings on VOT, which represents the phasing relation between stop release gesture and the glottal opening gesture, also show this dialect is a true voiced language with pre-voiced, unaspirated emphatic, and aspirated stops. The duration of the vowel preceding the obstruent is short and the one following the obstruent is long in geminate contexts, while the opposite is true in singleton contexts.Based on PAM, the findings from the production experiment, and previous works on Seoul Korean obstruents, I offer a set of testable predictions for how Saudi Arabic and Seoul Korean listeners perceive sounds from the other language. The predictions are tested in cross-language perceptual assimilation experiments. The results are consistent with the predictions except for a few notable patterns. Listeners generally assimilate non-native sounds to the native counterparts involving the same articulator, constriction location, VOT, and/or constriction duration, as found in Saudi Arabic /t d s sʕ/ and /tː dː sː sʕː/ and Seoul Korean /th t t* sh s*/. However, Saudi Arabic emphatic stops /tʕ tʕː/ are assimilated more frequently as Seoul Korean labials /p p*/ than coronals. This emphatic- to-labial assimilation pattern is not expected because /tʕ tʕː/ and /p p*/ have different places of articulation. A possible explanation could be their acoustic, but not articulatory, similarity since pharyngealized and labial sounds usually lower the F2 of adjacent vowels, which might lead Seoul Korean listeners to assimilate emphatic consonants to labial consonants. Taken together, the findings suggest that non-native perception is not exclusively articulatory but also acoustic. In addition to articulatory gestures, the current results could call for a revision of PAM’s principles to include a reference to acoustic properties in its predictions. The perception experiments reveal that non-native listeners attend to articulatory as well as acoustic features, relying on the acoustics of sounds articulatorily different from their native sound categories.