Phonological Underspecification: An Explanation for How a Rake Can Become Awake

Front Hum Neurosci. 2021 Feb 17;15:585817. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.585817. eCollection 2021.

Abstract

Neural markers, such as the mismatch negativity (MMN), have been used to examine the phonological underspecification of English feature contrasts using the Featurally Underspecified Lexicon (FUL) model. However, neural indices have not been examined within the approximant phoneme class, even though there is evidence suggesting processing asymmetries between liquid (e.g., /ɹ/) and glide (e.g., /w/) phonemes. The goal of this study was to determine whether glide phonemes elicit electrophysiological asymmetries related to [consonantal] underspecification when contrasted with liquid phonemes in adult English speakers. Specifically, /ɹɑ/ is categorized as [+consonantal] while /wɑ/ is not specified [i.e., (-consonantal)]. Following the FUL framework, if /w/ is less specified than /ɹ/, the former phoneme should elicit a larger MMN response than the latter phoneme. Fifteen English-speaking adults were presented with two syllables, /ɹɑ/ and /wɑ/, in an event-related potential (ERP) oddball paradigm in which both syllables served as the standard and deviant stimulus in opposite stimulus sets. Three types of analyses were used: (1) traditional mean amplitude measurements; (2) cluster-based permutation analyses; and (3) event-related spectral perturbation (ERSP) analyses. The less specified /wɑ/ elicited a large MMN, while a much smaller MMN was elicited by the more specified /ɹɑ/. In the standard and deviant ERP waveforms, /wɑ/ elicited a significantly larger negative response than did /ɹɑ/. Theta activity elicited by /ɹɑ/ was significantly greater than that elicited by /wɑ/ in the 100-300 ms time window. Also, low gamma activation was significantly lower for /ɹɑ/ vs. /wɑ/ deviants over the left hemisphere, as compared to the right, in the 100-150 ms window. These outcomes suggest that the [consonantal] feature follows the underspecification predictions of FUL previously tested with the place of articulation and voicing features. Thus, this study provides new evidence for phonological underspecification. Moreover, as neural oscillation patterns have not previously been discussed in the underspecification literature, the ERSP analyses identified potential new indices of phonological underspecification.

Keywords: EEG; ERP; ERSP; MMN; gamma; phonology; theta; underspecification.