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Lang Cogn Process. 2012 Oct 1;27(10):1550-1562. Epub 2012 Jun 25.

Typological Asymmetries in Round Vowel Harmony: Support from Artificial Grammar Learning.

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Department of Psychology Elmhurst College 190 Prospect Ave Elmhurst, IL 60126


Providing evidence for the universal tendencies of patterns in the world's languages can be difficult, as it is impossible to sample all possible languages, and linguistic samples are subject to interpretation. However, experimental techniques such as artificial grammar learning paradigms make it possible to uncover the psychological reality of claimed universal tendencies. This paper addresses learning of phonological patterns (systematic tendencies in the sounds in language). Specifically, I explore the role of phonetic grounding in learning round harmony, a phonological process in which words must contain either all round vowels ([o, u]) or all unround vowels ([i, e]). The phonetic precursors to round harmony are such that mid vowels ([o, e]), which receive the greatest perceptual benefit from harmony, are most likely to trigger harmony. High vowels ([i, u]), however, are cross-linguistically less likely to trigger round harmony. Adult participants were exposed to a miniature language that contained a round harmony pattern in which the harmony source triggers were either high vowels ([i, u]) (poor harmony source triggers) or mid vowels ([o, e]) (ideal harmony source triggers). Only participants who were exposed to the ideal mid vowel harmony source triggers were successfully able to generalize the harmony pattern to novel instances, suggesting that perception and phonetic naturalness play a role in learning.

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