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How phonological reductions sometimes help the listener

Mitterer, H., & Russell, K. (2013). How phonological reductions sometimes help the listener. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 977-984. doi:10.1037/a0029196.
In speech production, high-frequency words are more likely than low-frequency words to be phonologically reduced. We tested in an eye-tracking experiment whether listeners can make use of this correlation between lexical frequency and phonological realization of words. Participants heard prefixed verbs in which the prefix was either fully produced or reduced. Simultaneously, they saw a high-frequency verb and a low-frequency verb with this prefix-plus 2 distractors-on a computer screen. Participants were more likely to look at the high-frequency verb when they heard a reduced prefix than when they heard a fully produced prefix. Listeners hence exploit the correlation of lexical frequency and phonological reduction and assume that a reduced prefix is more likely to belong to a high-frequency word. This shows that reductions do not necessarily burden the listener but may in fact have a communicative function, in line with functional theories of phonology.
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