UCL talk, Feb 11th

Talk at University College London Speech Science Forum. Link is here. Slides for the talk are here. Recording is available here (Access Passcode: 71&Gx#4E)

Gestural coordination in the living lexicon of spoken words

Language varieties show variety-specific patterns of gestural coordination, where gestures are forces (dynamics) that exert control over articulatory movements (kinematics), see, e.g., Browman & Goldstein (1986). By hypothesis, the dimensions of gestural control are those that serve phonological function, e.g., supporting contrast in the lexicon.

I start by illustrating this point with a comparison of Russian palatalized consonants, e.g., /pj/, /bj/, /mj/, with articulatorily similar English sequences /pj/, /bj/, /mj/. High temporal resolution articulatory tracking, using Electromagnetic Articulography (EMA), reveals systematic differences in coordination corresponding to differing phonological functions: complex segments (Russian) vs. segment sequences (English).

I next present cases in which linguistic context conditions systematic changes in gestural coordination. First, in Tokyo Japanese, high vowel devoicing can trigger the categorical loss of a lingual gesture for the vowel and subsequent reorganization of gestural coordination (Shaw & Kawahara 2018, 2021). Second, in Mandarin Chinese, certain morpho-syntactic environments condition a shift in gestural timing, which shortens syllable duration and precipitates a loss of lexical tone. This last case is particularly informative when compared with diaspora Tibetan, where tone loss has proceeded without gestural reorganization (Geissler et al., 2021). These patterns are consistent with a characterization of the human lexicon in terms of a relatively small number of gestures and coordination modes, organized to support phonological function and sensitive to linguistic context.

I close by presenting two additional cases, also drawn from Mandarin and Japanese, that challenge the completeness of this view of the lexicon, showing both (1) that the lexicon absorbs contextual prosodic influences, leading to gradient shifts in phonetic form (Tang & Shaw, 2021) and (2) that words can resist influences of prosodic context (Kawahara, Shaw, Ishihara, 2021). Taken together, the data suggest that a low dimensional characterization of the lexicon in terms of discrete gestures and coordination modes co-exists with a representation of higher dimensional phonetic parameterization.


Browman, C., & Goldstein, L. (1986). Towards an Articulatory Phonology. Phonology Yearbook, 3, 219-252.

Geissler, C.,  Shaw, J.A., Fang H. & Tiede M.. (2021). Eccentric C-V timing across speakers of diaspora Tibetan with and without lexical tone contrasts. Proceedings of the 12th International Seminar on Speech Production, Yale University, 4pgs.

Kawahara, S., Shaw, J.A., & Ishihara, S. (2021). Assessing the prosodic licensing of wh-in-situ in Japanese: A computational-experimental approach. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-021-09504-3

Shaw, J. A., & Kawahara, S. (2018). The lingual articulation of devoiced /u/ in Tokyo Japanese. Journal of Phonetics, 66, 100-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wocn.2017.09.007

Shaw, J. A., & Kawahara, S. (2021). More on the articulation of devoiced /u/ in Tokyo Japanese: effects of surrounding consonants. manuscript, Yale University and Keio University. 47 pgs.

Tang, K., & Shaw, J. A. (2021). Prosody leaks into the memories of words. Cognition210, 104601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104601