Variable domains and variable relevance: interpreting phonetic exponents

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Spoken language is a resource which is systematically deployed in the management of social interaction, its primary site of occurrence. The patterns and structures in language are emergent properties of, and shaped by, the contingencies and demands of social interaction. However, despite significant advances in modeling speech perception and understanding, and an increasing acknowledgment of the relevance of phonetic detail, there continues to be an overemphasis on issues of lexical distinctiveness and lexical access with the consequence that many kinds of systematically-controlled fine phonetic detail do not find their way into contemporary models. I argue that it is now timely to think more carefully about what it means to talk about linguistic–phonological contrast and distinctiveness and the relevance of phonetic detail. I argue that: i.Lexical contrast is overvalued in speech perception and understanding; ii.It is time to examine more closely the phonetic detail of talk-in-interaction; iii.Particular phonetic details and phonetic variability are associated with particular interactional, grammatical and lexical systems and that this ‘context-embeddedness’ is both useful for and used in speech understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-339
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Phonetics
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2003

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