This project explores the phonetics of several sub-dialects of Arabic spoken in Israel. The main focus is on the acoustic properties of vowels and the ways that native speakers perceive them. A distinctive feature of Arabic is that in casual speech, a great many words can optionally be pronounced with extra vowels: for example, the Arabic word for "girl" can be pronounced as either "bint" or "binit". There is evidence that the optional vowels are different from regular vowels, but the details of these differences have not been investigated in depth. The project consists of data collection, elicitation, and experiments designed to identify the nature of these vowels, their acoustic properties, and how speakers perceive them.
Phonetics experiments will be carried out at several Israeli universities, with Arabic-speaking university students as participants. The project will train U.S. graduate students in acoustic speech analysis, experiment design and phonetic fieldwork.
The project will have both practical and scientific implications. A better understanding of the phonetics of Arabic may help advance the state of the art in automatic speech recognition, speech to speech translation, speaker identification, as well as the teaching of colloquial Arabic. Scientifically, the optional vowels have posed difficulty for theories of language due to certain puzzling properties, for instance that they never appear in stressed syllables. A better understanding of the acoustics of these vowels can help resolve such puzzles. More generally, the project will contribute to our understanding of the mental and physical processes underlying human speech production and perception.