Most phonological linguistic theory, and the cross-linguistic studies which inform it, is based on studies of a few, well-studied languages. Much less is known about the sound systems (phonology) of languages with fewer speakers. Furthermore, descriptions of understudied languages, particularly of sound systems, are easily biased by linguists' native languages. Non-native listener biases often lead to contradictory descriptions which are therefore unsuitable for cross-linguistic comparisons.

This project examines the phonological system of an understudied and endangered language. Previous description of its phonological system is sparse, but existing documentation indicates that this language includes some features which are of special theoretical or typological interest. For example, the language uses uvular sounds, glottalized sonorants, and a voiceless lateral fricative. Each of these sounds (or sets of sounds) is cross-linguistically uncommon. Their appearance in this particular language is also unexpected; in comparison to other languages' sound systems, the set of sounds and features which co-occur in this system is unusual. In addition, the study is of regional interest; it will expand linguists' understanding of contact-driven language change and shed light on long-term histories of contact among groups in the region. This study combines traditional methodologies—including recording an audio-video corpus of speech, written transcription, and controlled elicitation—with quantitative experimental methodologies. The experimental component of the project targets questions of theoretical and typological interest. For example, what acoustic cues to speakers use to produce and perceive stress? Are long vowels separate segments from shorter vowels? Should 'creaky voice' be analyzed as a feature of individual segments, words, or phrases? Results from controlled experiments will be integrated with traditional, corpus-driven conclusions to develop a comprehensive phonological description of a previously undescribed system. Precise, quantitative analysis, integrated with a holistic description and publicly-available corpus of language data, will allow these results to contribute to broader questions related to sound patterns, language typology, language contact, and diachronic change.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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University of Texas Austin
United States
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