Many factors have been proposed to explain why groups of people use different speech sounds in their language. These range from cultural, cognitive, environmental (e.g., Everett, et al., 2015) to anatomical (e.g., vocal tract (VT) morphology). How could such anatomical properties have led to the similarities and differences in speech sound distributions between human languages?
It is known that hard palate profile variation can induce different articulatory strategies in speakers (e.g., Brunner et al., 2009). That is, different hard palate profiles might induce a kind of bias on speech sound production, easing some types of sounds while impeding others. With a population of speakers (with a proportion of individuals) that share certain anatomical properties, even subtle VT biases might become expressed at a population-level (through e.g., bias amplification, Kirby et al., 2007). However, before we look into population-level effects, we should first look at within-individual anatomical factors. For that, we have developed a computer-simulated analogue for a human speaker: an agent. Our agent is designed to replicate speech sounds using a production and cognition module in a computationally tractable manner.
Previous agent models have often used more abstract (e.g., symbolic) signals. (e.g., Kirby et al., 2007). We have equipped our agent with a three-dimensional model of the VT (the production module, based on Birkholz, 2005) to which we made numerous adjustments. Specifically, we used a 4th-order Bezier curve that is able to capture hard palate variation on the mid-sagittal plane (XXX, 2015). Using an evolutionary algorithm, we were able to fit the model to human hard palate MRI tracings, yielding high accuracy fits and using as little as two parameters. Finally, we show that the samples map well-dispersed to the parameter-space, demonstrating that the model cannot generate unrealistic profiles. We can thus use this procedure to import palate measurements into our agent’s production module to investigate the effects on acoustics. We can also exaggerate/introduce novel biases.
Our agent is able to control the VT model using the cognition module.
Previous research has focused on detailed neurocomputation (e.g., Kröger et al., 2014) that highlights e.g., neurobiological principles or speech recognition performance. However, the brain is not the focus of our current study. Furthermore, present-day computing throughput likely does not allow for large-scale deployment of these architectures, as required by the population model we are developing. Thus, the question whether a very simple cognition module is able to replicate sounds in a computationally tractable manner, and even generalize over novel stimuli, is one worthy of attention in its own right.
Our agent’s cognition module is based on running an evolutionary algorithm on a large population of feed-forward neural networks (NNs). As such, (anatomical) bias strength can be thought of as an attractor basin area within the parameter-space the agent has to explore. The NN we used consists of a triple-layered (fully-connected), directed graph. The input layer (three neurons) receives the formants frequencies of a target-sound. The output layer (12 neurons) projects to the articulators in the production module. A hidden layer (seven neurons) enables the network to deal with nonlinear dependencies. The Euclidean distance (first three formants) between target and replication is used as fitness measure. Results show that sound replication is indeed possible, with Euclidean distance quickly approaching a close-to-zero asymptote.
Statistical analysis should reveal if the agent can also: a) Generalize: Can it replicate sounds not exposed to during learning? b) Replicate consistently: Do different, isolated agents always converge on the same sounds? c) Deal with consolidation: Can it still learn new sounds after an extended learning phase (‘infancy’) has been terminated? Finally, a comparison with more complex models will be used to demonstrate robustness.