Vowel devoicing and the perception of spoken Japanese words

Cutler, A., Otake, T., & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Vowel devoicing and the perception of spoken Japanese words. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 125(3), 1693-1703. doi:10.1121/1.3075556.
Three experiments, in which Japanese listeners detected Japanese words embedded in nonsense sequences, examined the perceptual consequences of vowel devoicing in that language. Since vowelless sequences disrupt speech segmentation [Norris et al. (1997). Cognit. Psychol. 34, 191– 243], devoicing is potentially problematic for perception. Words in initial position in nonsense sequences were detected more easily when followed by a sequence containing a vowel than by a vowelless segment (with or without further context), and vowelless segments that were potential devoicing environments were no easier than those not allowing devoicing. Thus asa, “morning,” was easier in asau or asazu than in all of asap, asapdo, asaf, or asafte, despite the fact that the /f/ in the latter two is a possible realization of fu, with devoiced [u]. Japanese listeners thus do not treat devoicing contexts as if they always contain vowels. Words in final position in nonsense sequences, however, produced a different pattern: here, preceding vowelless contexts allowing devoicing impeded word detection less strongly (so, sake was detected less accurately, but not less rapidly, in nyaksake—possibly arising from nyakusake—than in nyagusake). This is consistent with listeners treating consonant sequences as potential realizations of parts of existing lexical candidates wherever possible.
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