The strong/weak syllable distinction in English

Fear, B. D., Cutler, A., & Butterfield, S. (1995). The strong/weak syllable distinction in English. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 97, 1893-1904. doi:10.1121/1.412063.
Strong and weak syllables in English can be distinguished on the basis of vowel quality, of stress, or of both factors. Critical for deciding between these factors are syllables containing unstressed unreduced vowels, such as the first syllable of automata. In this study 12 speakers produced sentences containing matched sets of words with initial vowels ranging from stressed to reduced, at normal and at fast speech rates. Measurements of the duration, intensity, F0, and spectral characteristics of the word-initial vowels showed that unstressed unreduced vowels differed significantly from both stressed and reduced vowels. This result held true across speaker sex and dialect. The vowels produced by one speaker were then cross-spliced across the words within each set, and the resulting words' acceptability was rated by listeners. In general, cross-spliced words were only rated significantly less acceptable than unspliced words when reduced vowels interchanged with any other vowel. Correlations between rated acceptability and acoustic characteristics of the cross-spliced words demonstrated that listeners were attending to duration, intensity, and spectral characteristics. Together these results suggest that unstressed unreduced vowels in English pattern differently from both stressed and reduced vowels, so that no acoustic support for a binary categorical distinction exists; nevertheless, listeners make such a distinction, grouping unstressed unreduced vowels by preference with stressed vowels
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