Rhythmic cues and possible-word constraints in Japanese speech segmentation

McQueen, J. M., Otake, T., & Cutler, A. (2001). Rhythmic cues and possible-word constraints in Japanese speech segmentation. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 103-132. doi:10.1006/jmla.2000.2763.
In two word-spotting experiments, Japanese listeners detected Japanese words faster in vowel contexts (e.g., agura, to sit cross-legged, in oagura) than in consonant contexts (e.g., tagura). In the same experiments, however, listeners spotted words in vowel contexts (e.g., saru, monkey, in sarua) no faster than in moraic nasal contexts (e.g., saruN). In a third word-spotting experiment, words like uni, sea urchin, followed contexts consisting of a consonant-consonant-vowel mora (e.g., gya) plus either a moraic nasal (gyaNuni), a vowel (gyaouni) or a consonant (gyabuni). Listeners spotted words as easily in the first as in the second context (where in each case the target words were aligned with mora boundaries), but found it almost impossible to spot words in the third (where there was a single consonant, such as the [b] in gyabuni, between the beginning of the word and the nearest preceding mora boundary). Three control experiments confirmed that these effects reflected the relative ease of segmentation of the words from their contexts.We argue that the listeners showed sensitivity to the viability of sound sequences as possible Japanese words in the way that they parsed the speech into words. Since single consonants are not possible Japanese words, the listeners avoided lexical parses including single consonants and thus had difficulty recognizing words in the consonant contexts. Even though moraic nasals are also impossible words, they were not difficult segmentation contexts because, as with the vowel contexts, the mora boundaries between the contexts and the target words signaled likely word boundaries. Moraic rhythm appears to provide Japanese listeners with important segmentation cues.
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