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Keywords:

  • Phonology;
  • Word segmentation;
  • Language universals;
  • Sonority;
  • Sonority sequencing principle

Abstract

It has been well documented how language-specific cues may be used for word segmentation. Here, we investigate what role a language-independent phonological universal, the sonority sequencing principle (SSP), may also play. Participants were presented with an unsegmented speech stream with non-English word onsets that juxtaposed adherence to the SSP with transitional probabilities. Participants favored using the SSP in assessing word-hood, suggesting that the SSP represents a potentially powerful cue for word segmentation. To ensure the SSP influenced the segmentation process (i.e., during learning), we presented two additional groups of participants with either (a) no exposure to the stimuli prior to testing or (b) the same stimuli with pauses marking word breaks. The SSP did not influence test performance in either case, suggesting that the SSP is important for word segmentation during the learning process itself. Moreover, the fact that SSP-independent segmentation of the stimulus occurred (in the latter control condition) suggests that universals are best understood as biases rather than immutable constraints on learning.