Linguistik-Klassifikation: Phonetik/Phonologie / Phonetics/Phonology
The evolution of auditory contrast
- This paper reconciles the standpoint that language users do not aim at improving their sound systems with the observation that languages seem to improve their sound systems. Computer simulations of inventories of sibilants show that Optimality-Theoretic learners who optimize their perception grammars automatically introduce a so-called prototype effect, i.e. the phenomenon that the learner’s preferred auditory realization of a certain phonological category is more peripheral than the average auditory realization of this category in her language environment. In production, however, this prototype effect is counteracted by an articulatory effect that limits the auditory form to something that is not too difficult to pronounce. If the prototype effect and the articulatory effect are of a different size, the learner must end up with an auditorily different sound system from that of her language environment. The computer simulations show that, independently of the initial auditory sound system, a stable equilibrium is reached within a small number of generations. In this stable state, the dispersion of the sibilants of the language strikes an optimal balance between articulatory ease and auditory contrast. The important point is that this is derived within a model without any goal-oriented elements such as dispersion constraints.