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Keywords:

  • Phonology;
  • Phonotactics;
  • Statistical learning;
  • n-gram models;
  • Consonant harmony

Abstract

Traditional flat-structured bigram and trigram models of phonotactics are useful because they capture a large number of facts about phonological processes. Additionally, these models predict that local interactions should be easier to learn than long-distance ones because long-distance dependencies are difficult to capture with these models. Long-distance phonotactic patterns have been observed by linguists in many languages, who have proposed different kinds of models, including feature-based bigram and trigram models, as well as precedence models. Contrary to flat-structured bigram and trigram models, these alternatives capture unbounded dependencies because at an abstract level of representation, the relevant elements are locally dependent, even if they are not adjacent at the observable level. Using an artificial grammar learning paradigm, we provide additional support for these alternative models of phonotactics. Participants in two experiments were exposed to a long-distance consonant-harmony pattern in which the first consonant of a five-syllable word was [s] or [∫] (“sh”) and triggered a suffix that was either [-su] or [-∫u] depending on the sibilant quality of this first consonant. Participants learned this pattern, despite the large distance between the trigger and the target, suggesting that when participants learn long-distance phonological patterns, that pattern is learned without specific reference to distance.