Arthur Seymour Abramson (1925–2017) was an American linguist who was prominent in the international experimental phonetics research community. He was best known for his pioneering work, with Leigh Lisker, on voice onset time (VOT), and for his many years spent studying tone and voice quality in languages such as Thai. Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Abramson served several years in the Army during World War II. Upon his return to civilian life, he attended Columbia University (BA, 1950; PhD, 1960). There he met Franklin Cooper, an adjunct who taught acoustic phonetics while also working for Haskins Laboratories. Abramson started working on a part-time basis at Haskins and remained affiliated with the institution until his death. For his doctoral dissertation (1962), he studied the vowels and tones of the Thai language, which would sit at the heart of his research and travels for the rest of his life. He would expand his investigations to include various languages and dialects, such as Pattani Malay and the Kuai dialect of Suai, a Mon-Khmer language. Abramson began his collaboration with University Pennsylvania linguist Leigh Lisker at Haskins Laboratories in the 1960s. Using their unique VOT technique, a sensitive measure of the articulatory timing between an occlusion in the vocal tract and the beginning of phonation (characterized by the onset of vibration of the vocal folds), they studied the voicing distinctions of various languages. Their long standing collaboration continued until Lisker’s death in 2006. Abramson and colleagues often made innovative use of state-of-art tools and technologies in their work, including transillumination of the larynx in running speech, X-ray movies of speakers in several languages/dialects, electroglottography, and articulatory speech synthesis. Abramson’s career was also notable for the academic and scientific service roles that he assumed, including membership on the council of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), and as a coordinator of the effort to revise the International Phonetic Alphabet at the IPA’s 1989 Kiel Convention. He was also editor of the journal Language and Speech, and took on leadership roles at the Linguistic Society of America and the Acoustical Society of America. He was the founding Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Connecticut, which became a hotbed for research in experimental phonetics in the 1970s and 1980s because of its many affiliations with Haskins Laboratories. He also served for many years as a board member at Haskins, and Secretary of both the Board and the Haskins Corporation, where he was a friend and mentor to many.
One of the most fundamental problems in research on spoken language is to understand how the categorical, systemic knowledge that speakers have in the form of a phonological grammar maps onto the continuous, high-dimensional physical speech act that transmits the linguistic message. The invariant units of phonological analysis have no invariant analogue in the signal—any given phoneme can manifest itself in many possible variants, depending on context, speech rate, utterance position and the like, and the acoustic cues for a given phoneme are spread out over time across multiple linguistic units. Speakers and listeners are highly knowledgeable about the lawfully structured variation in the signal and they skillfully exploit articulatory and acoustic trading relations when speaking and perceiving. For the scientific description of spoken language understanding this association between abstract, discrete categories and continuous speech dynamics remains a formidable challenge. Articulatory Phonology and the associated Task Dynamic model present one particular proposal on how to step up to this challenge using the mathematics of dynamical systems with the central insight being that spoken language is fundamentally based on the production and perception of linguistically defined patterns of motion. In Articulatory Phonology, primitive units of phonological representation are called gestures. Gestures are defined based on linear second order differential equations, giving them inherent spatial and temporal specifications. Gestures control the vocal tract at a macroscopic level, harnessing the many degrees of freedom in the vocal tract into low-dimensional control units. Phonology, in this model, thus directly governs the spatial and temporal orchestration of vocal tract actions.
Morphological defectiveness refers to situations where one or more paradigmatic forms of a lexeme are not realized, without plausible syntactic, semantic, or phonological causes. The phenomenon tends to be associated with low-frequency lexemes and loanwords. Typically, defectiveness is gradient, lexeme-specific, and sensitive to the internal structure of paradigms. The existence of defectiveness is a challenge to acquisition models and morphological theories where there are elsewhere operations to materialize items. For this reason, defectiveness has become a rich field of research in recent years, with distinct approaches that view it as an item-specific idiosyncrasy, as an epiphenomenal result of rule competition, or as a normal morphological alternation within a paradigmatic space.
Carol A. Fowler
The theory of speech perception as direct derives from a general direct-realist account of perception. A realist stance on perception is that perceiving enables occupants of an ecological niche to know its component layouts, objects, animals, and events. “Direct” perception means that perceivers are in unmediated contact with their niche (mediated neither by internally generated representations of the environment nor by inferences made on the basis of fragmentary input to the perceptual systems). Direct perception is possible because energy arrays that have been causally structured by niche components and that are available to perceivers specify (i.e., stand in 1:1 relation to) components of the niche. Typically, perception is multi-modal; that is, perception of the environment depends on specifying information present in, or even spanning, multiple energy arrays. Applied to speech perception, the theory begins with the observation that speech perception involves the same perceptual systems that, in a direct-realist theory, enable direct perception of the environment. Most notably, the auditory system supports speech perception, but also the visual system, and sometimes other perceptual systems. Perception of language forms (consonants, vowels, word forms) can be direct if the forms lawfully cause specifying patterning in the energy arrays available to perceivers. In Articulatory Phonology, the primitive language forms (constituting consonants and vowels) are linguistically significant gestures of the vocal tract, which cause patterning in air and on the face. Descriptions are provided of informational patterning in acoustic and other energy arrays. Evidence is next reviewed that speech perceivers make use of acoustic and cross modal information about the phonetic gestures constituting consonants and vowels to perceive the gestures. Significant problems arise for the viability of a theory of direct perception of speech. One is the “inverse problem,” the difficulty of recovering vocal tract shapes or actions from acoustic input. Two other problems arise because speakers coarticulate when they speak. That is, they temporally overlap production of serially nearby consonants and vowels so that there are no discrete segments in the acoustic signal corresponding to the discrete consonants and vowels that talkers intend to convey (the “segmentation problem”), and there is massive context-sensitivity in acoustic (and optical and other modalities) patterning (the “invariance problem”). The present article suggests solutions to these problems. The article also reviews signatures of a direct mode of speech perception, including that perceivers use cross-modal speech information when it is available and exhibit various indications of perception-production linkages, such as rapid imitation and a disposition to converge in dialect with interlocutors. An underdeveloped domain within the theory concerns the very important role of longer- and shorter-term learning in speech perception. Infants develop language-specific modes of attention to acoustic speech signals (and optical information for speech), and adult listeners attune to novel dialects or foreign accents. Moreover, listeners make use of lexical knowledge and statistical properties of the language in speech perception. Some progress has been made in incorporating infant learning into a theory of direct perception of speech, but much less progress has been made in the other areas.
Kimi Akita and Mark Dingemanse
Ideophones, also termed mimetics or expressives, are marked words that depict sensory imagery. They are found in many of the world’s languages, and sizable lexical classes of ideophones are particularly well-documented in the languages of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Ideophones are not limited to onomatopoeia like meow and smack but cover a wide range of sensory domains, such as manner of motion (e.g., plisti plasta ‘splish-splash’ in Basque), texture (e.g., tsaklii ‘rough’ in Ewe), and psychological states (e.g., wakuwaku ‘excited’ in Japanese). Across languages, ideophones stand out as marked words due to special phonotactics, expressive morphology including certain types of reduplication, and relative syntactic independence, in addition to production features like prosodic foregrounding and common co-occurrence with iconic gestures. Three intertwined issues have been repeatedly debated in the century-long literature on ideophones. (a) Definition: Isolated descriptive traditions and cross-linguistic variation have sometimes obscured a typologically unified view of ideophones, but recent advances show the promise of a prototype definition of ideophones as conventionalized depictions in speech, with room for language-specific nuances. (b) Integration: The variable integration of ideophones across linguistic levels reveals an interaction between expressiveness and grammatical integration, and has important implications for how to conceive of dependencies between linguistic systems. (c) Iconicity: Ideophones form a natural laboratory for the study of iconic form-meaning associations in natural languages, and converging evidence from corpus and experimental studies suggests important developmental, evolutionary, and communicative advantages of ideophones.