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Using nonsense words to investigate vowel merger1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2013

University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch, New
University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, Department of Linguistics, 561 Moore Hall, 1890 East-West Road, Honolulu, Hawai'i
United Arab Emirates University, PO Box 17172, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab


In previous work, we have found that New Zealand listeners who produce merged tokens of near and square can accurately distinguish between the vowels in perception even though they report that they are guessing. The ability to distinguish the vowels is affected by a variety of factors for these listeners, including the likelihood that the speaker and experimenter maintain the distinction (Hay et al. 2006b; Hay et al. 2010). In this article, we report on experiments that examine the production and perception of real and nonsense words in the context of two mergers: the Ellen/Allan merger in New Zealand English and the lot/thought merger found in American English. The results demonstrate that speakers’ degree of merger depends at least partially on whether the word is a real or nonsense word. Additionally, the results indicate that a token's real word status affects the merger differently in production and perception. We argue that these results provide evidence in favour of a hybrid model of speech production and perception, one with both abstract phoneme-level representations and acoustically detailed episodic representations.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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This work was supported by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship to the first author. We are grateful to our referees for their detailed feedback, to Rebecca Clifford and Liam Walsh for their help with analysis, and to the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour for their financial support.


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