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Is morphosyntactic agreement reflected in acoustic detail? The s duration of English regular plural nouns

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Studies have challenged the assumption that different types of word-final s in English are homophonous. On the one hand, affixal (e.g., laps) and non-affixal s (e.g., lapse) differ in their duration; on the other hand, variation exists across several types of affixal s (e.g., between the plural (cars) and genitive plural (cars’)). This line of research was recently expanded in a study in which an interesting side effect appeared: the s was longer if followed by a past tense verb (e.g., The pods / odds eventually dropped.), in comparison to a following present tense verb (e.g., The old screens / jeans obviously need replacing.). Put differently, the s became longer in the absence of overt morphosyntactic agreement, where it was mostly the sole plurality marker in the sentence. The objective of the present article is to examine whether this effect can be replicated in a more controlled setting. Having considered a large number of potential confounding variables in a reading experiment, we found an effect in the expected direction, one that is compatible with the literature on the impact that predictability has on duration. We interpret this finding against the background of the role of fine acoustic detail in language.
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Is morphosyntactic agreement reected in acoustic detail?
The sduration of English regular plural nouns
1
MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG
Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg
and
GREVILLE G. CORBETT
University of Surrey
(Received 11 June 2021; revised 20 May 2022)
Studies have challenged the assumption that different types of word-nal sin English are
homophonous. On the one hand, afxal (e.g. laps) and non-afxal s(e.g. lapse)differin
their duration; on the other hand, variation exists across several types of afxal s(e.g.
between the plural (cars) and genitive plural (cars)). This line of research was recently
expanded in a study in which an interesting side effect appeared: the swas longer if
followed by a past tense verb (e.g. The pods/oddseventuallydropped), in comparison to a
following present tense verb (e.g. The old screens/jeans obviously need replacing.). Put
differently, the sbecame longer in the absence of overt morphosyntactic agreement,
where it was mostly the sole plurality marker in the sentence. The objective of the present
article is to examine whether this effect can be replicated in a more controlled setting.
Having considered a large number of potential confounding variables in a reading
experiment, we found an effect in the expected direction, one that is compatible with the
literature on the impact that predictability has on duration. We interpret this nding
against the background of the role of ne acoustic detail in language.
Keywords: English, plural, s, agreement, duration, acoustics
1 Introduction
The role of acoustic detail in phonologically identical forms is rather limited according to
some well-established psycholinguistic and linguistic models, and semantic, syntactic, or
morphological information is not expected to be reected in the acoustics. For instance,
the difference in morphological complexity between the English word laps, which is
complex, and lapse, which is simplex, should not be expressed in the acoustic output,
since the level between morphology and the acoustic output, namely phonology,
produces the same form for both laps and lapse. As one case in point, psycholinguistic
feed-forward models of speech production (see, e.g., Fromkin 1971/1973;Harley
1984; Levelt 1989,1995; Roelofs 1997; Levelt, Roelofs & Meyer 1999) do not leave
1
Schlechtweg is the principal author.
English Language and Linguistics, page 1 of 26. © The Authors, 2022. Published by Cambridge
University Press. This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits
unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
doi:10.1017/S1360674322000223
https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674322000223 Published online by Cambridge University Press
room for acoustic variation in the presence of phonological identity. Once the discrete
symbolic representations are specied at the phonological level, and are alike for two
words like laps and lapse, acoustic differences are excluded as long as everything
else, such as the context, is held constant. We nd a similar prediction in linguistic
models describing the interaction of morphology and phonology (e.g. Chomsky &
Halle 1968;Kiparsky1982; Bermúdez-Otero 2018). Here again, if laps and lapse
are not distinct on the abstract and underlying level of lexical phonology,
post-lexical phonology and phonetics should not cause acoustic variation.
Although these psycholinguistic and linguistic models represent (or represented)
the standard view, they have been challenged by many empirical studies showing
that the role of acoustic detail in the language system is greater than previously
assumed. These ndings are more compatible with exemplar-based accounts,
which offer more exibility in the speech production process and in which the
acoustic realization of items can be directly affected by activated information in,
say, the semantic, syntactic or morphological domain (see, e.g., Dell 1986;
Pierrehumbert 2001,2002).
2
The present article connects to all the previous research which asks whether acoustic
detail plays a more signicant role in language than well-known psycholinguistic and
linguistic models presume. Specically, we investigate whether morphosyntactic
agreement in English is reected in the acoustics, namely in the duration of the
word-nal sof regular plural nouns. Both noundeterminer and nounverb agreement
are in focus: while the determiner these agrees overtly with the subsequent plural noun
with respect to the number value (e.g. these cabs), the does not do so (e.g. the cabs);
similarly, while a present tense verb agrees overtly with the noun (e.g. cabs break
down), a past tense form does not (e.g. cabs broke down). Such an effect would be
remarkable, and so we proceed cautiously. However, a previous experiment
(Schlechtweg & Corbett 2021) gave a tantalizing hint that there might be such an
effect, and we therefore decided to investigate further. For this purpose, we conducted
a well-controlled reading experiment in which native speakers of English participated.
Before presenting the details of this study in section 3, we provide the theoretical
foundation of our analysis in section 2.Thisincludes,rst of all, a general overview of
variables that seem to affect the acoustic realization of items. In a second step, we
concentrate on one particular case, namely the duration of the word-nal sin English,
which has been measured in several contributions already and which is also the
response variable in our own study. In the third component of section 2,wereect
upon why morphosyntactic agreement might be potentially mirrored in acoustic detail
by considering previous research on how the concepts of informativeness and,
crucially, predictability can inuence the duration of linguistic material. Having
presented our study in section 3, we discuss our ndings in connection to previous
research in section 4and conclude in section 5.
2
See also, for instance, Plag, Homann & Kunter (2017); Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021).
2 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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2 Theoretical background
2.1 Phonological identity but acoustic variation: overview
In the last decades, a great number of studies have revealed that phonologically identical
forms can differ acoustically, in their duration for instance. The decisive question in this
research area is which particular variables are the origin of the acoustic variation. Four
examples of such variables are frequency, syntactic category, morphosyntactic number
and morphological status. Forms of higher frequency, such as the English noun time,
are typically produced with a shorter duration than forms of lower frequency, like the
phonologically identical word thyme (see, e.g., Whalen 1991; Gahl 2008;Drager2011;
Conwell 2018;Lohmann2018a,2018b; but see also, for conicting results, Jurafsky,
Bell & Girand 2002; Cohn et al.2005). Moreover, Sereno & Jongmans(1995)data
suggest that the syntactic category of an item affects the acoustics of this item; they
detected variation between words like answer (verb) and the respective nominal
equivalent (answer). Crucially, however, Lohmann (2020) did not replicate the effect.
A further variable that seems to be reected in acoustic detail is morphosyntactic
number, since Schlechtweg & Heinrichs (2022) and Schlechtweg, Heinrichs &
Linnenkohl (2020) found that German plural nouns (e.g. Schatten shadows)are
longer than the phonologically identical singular forms (e.g. Schatten shadow). A
fourth example of a variable is the morphological status. Elements of morphologically
complex words, like the dis prex of the English verb discolor, differ in their acoustic
properties from structures that are phonologically alike but lack a morphological
function, such as dis in discover (see, e.g., Kemps et al. 2005a;Kempset al. 2005b;
Sugahara & Turk 2009; Smith, Baker & Hawkins 2012). The variable morphological
status connects to several studies examining the duration of the word-nal sin English.
Since we also measured the sduration in our own study, we consider this aspect in
more detail in the next section.
2.2 Word-nal sin English
After the general overview of variables potentially affecting the acoustics of
phonologically identical forms, we focus on research on the duration of the English
word-nal shere. A central comparison in former investigations was the duration of
afxal and non-afxal s. On the one hand, there is evidence that afxal s,asinlaps,is
longer than non-afxal s,asinlapse (Walsh & Parker 1983; Schwarzlose & Bradlow
2001; Song et al. 2013;Seyfarthet al. 2018). Interestingly, the opposite effect, longer
non-afxal s, was found in quite a few other studies (Zimmermann 2016;Plaget al.
2017; Schmitz, Baer-Henney & Plag 2021; Tomaschek et al. 2021). These conicting
ndings are surprising in the rst instance, but there are several aspects that must be
taken into account. First of all, some of the studies are limited and caution is needed
when interpreting the respective data. As argued in Plag et al. (2017:185),itis
difcult to evaluate Schwarzlose & Bradlow (2001) and Walsh & Parker (1983), owing
to a small sample size and since many decisive details, including statistical details, are
3IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
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not presented. Second, at closer inspection, the results are not necessarily incompatible.
Tomaschek et al. (2021: 128) point to the fact that Seyfarth et al. (2018) predominantly
looked at the voiced s;thisspecic group was not only longer for afxal than for
non-afxal sin Seyfarth et al. (2018) but also in Plag et al. (2017).
Apart from the comparison of afxal and non-afxal s, different types of afxal shave
also been examined. Hsieh, Leonard & Swanson (1999), but not Song et al. (2013), found
longer plural (e.g. laps) than third-person singular s(e.g. plays), but they admit that
sentence position is a potential confound: the fact that plural forms occur more often
than third-person singular forms at the end of a sentence might also be responsible for
the effect. Plag et al.s(2020) experiment revealed that plural-genitive s(e.g.
colleagues) is longer than plural s(e.g. colleagues). The authors consider the lower
frequency of the plural-genitive to be a possible reason for this result. In a recent study,
Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021) concentrated on two other types of afxal s,namelythe
word-nal sin regular plural (e.g. toggles) and pluralia tantum nouns (e.g. goggles). In
a reading study, they tested 40 native speakers of English and nine pairs like toggles/
goggles.Theswas manually segmented and no difference in duration was detected
between the groups of interest. The null effect was attributed to the fact that both
regular plural and pluralia tantum nouns control morphosyntactic agreement regularly
(since both take a plural verb form). However, the statistical analysis, including linear
mixed-effects models, showed an interesting side effect. Before discussing the effect,
let us look at the test sentences used in the experiment (see table 1).
In the study presented in Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021), it was essential to control for
potentially confounding variables across the two conditions regular plural and pluralia
tantum nouns. One way to achieve this was by relying on the same sentences in the
two conditions so that, say, toggles and goggles were read out in exactly the same
environment. For the present purpose, however, we need to consider a type of variation
between the different test sentences: while four were in the present tense, a past tense
verb occurred in ve others. VerbTense was included in the mixed effects model as a
Table 1. Test sentences used in Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021)
Present tense verb Past tense verb
His yearnings/earnings appear to worry his
therapist more and more.
The pods/odds eventually dropped.
These old screens/jeans obviously need
replacing.
These new browsers/trousers unexpectedly
caused a stir.
These small freezers/tweezers always cause
problems.
The extra beers/shears ended up in the shed.
The toggles/goggles appear to be broken and
theyre useless.
Our brass gongs/tongs amazingly sold for
several pounds at auction.
The res/pliers eased the job of getting rid of the
rubbish.
4 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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xed effect and three criteria, outlined in Plag et al. (2017: 194), showed that VerbTense
played a crucial role in the study. First, after the elimination of non-signicant xed
effects, VerbTense remained in the nal model as a signicant xed effect with t
statistics smaller than -2. Second, it turned out that VerbTense improved the tofthe
model, since the model with this xed effect was signicantly different from the model
without VerbTense. Third, the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC) was smaller if
VerbTense was in the model, in comparison to the model without it. The robustness of
the effect was indicated by the fact that different models conrmed the nding. Table 2
presents the details of one model, in which the effect of VerbTense on the sduration
becomes clear.
3
The descriptive statistics showed mean values of 0.062 seconds for the
sentences with present tense verbs (standard deviation (SD) = 0.016) and 0.070
seconds for those in the past (SD = 0.017).
In sum, we observe two aspects in Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021), which are
relevant to the current article. First, the sof the respective nouns was shorter if the
sentence contained a present tense verb, in comparison to sentences with a past
tense verb. That is, the sduration was reduced in the presence of overt
morphosyntactic agreement, with the verb form functioning as another plurality
marker. It could be that the longer sduration in sentences with a past tense verb
compensates for the lack of another plurality marker. Second, as can be seen in table 1,
we have to take into consideration that the groups, present tense (overt agreement) and
past tense (no overt agreement), included totally different test sentences. The effect
must therefore be treated with caution, and a controlled experiment needs to be
designed and conducted to evaluate whether the effect is indeed real. This is the
objective of the current work. Apart from the cases of nounverb agreement just
referred to, we intend to examine a second type of agreement in English, namely noun
determiner agreement, by contrasting the sentences with these,whichreects overt
plural agreement between noun and determiner, to those with the, which might precede
both a singular and a plural noun and hence does not signal overt number agreement.
In table 1, we see that there was overt noundeterminer agreement in some (the
sentences with these) but not in other sentences (the sentences with the,his,our).
Although no effect of DeterminerAgreement was detected in the above-named study,
we investigate this in a controlled experiment, too. Hence, in the controlled experiment,
both nounverb (present versus past tense verb) and noundeterminer agreement (these
versus the) are examined.
Table 2. VerbTense in the mixed-effects model of Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021)
Estimate SE df t value Pr(>|t|)
VerbTense (present) 0.067431 0.014370 17.720595 4.693 0.000189***
3
Statistical outliers (sdurations) were excluded and the sdurations were then log transformed (to the base 10).
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2.3 No overt versus overt agreement: why the smight differ in duration
Before presenting and discussing the controlled experiment, this section reects upon
why distinct sdurations might be theoretically plausible. On the basis of the data
presented in the experiment described above and on the basis of two further reasons
the informative value and the syntagmatic probability of the sin the respective
sentences we hypothesize that overt morphosyntactic agreement leads to a reduced s.
The rst reason is that reduction in speech production is common for less informative,
or relevant, material (see, e.g., Krasheninnikova 1979: 75; Demuth 2011). Engelhardt
&Ferreira(2014) present evidence for this idea. They contrasted the acoustic
realization of necessary and unnecessary modiers. That is, while blue in the phrase
the blue triangle is necessary if triangles of different colors exist in the same context, it
is unnecessary if only a single triangle is present in a given situation. It was shown that
unnecessary modiers, which do not provide an essential piece of information for the
unique identication of the object (e.g. a triangle), were shorter in duration than
necessary ones, which are, in turn, informative and decisive for the specication of the
target object (e.g. the blue but not the purple triangle). Transferring these ndings to
the present project, we suggest that the sis most informative in sentences without overt
plural agreement and hypothesize that its duration is longer here.
The second reason why agreement might affect the duration of the sis the concept of
syntagmatic probability or predictability. Awell-known idea in psycholinguistics, which
has good empirical support, is that speakers tend to reduce elements in speech if they are
predictable, since less articulatory effort is needed for reduced speech and since successful
communication is still likely in reduced structures due to the high predictability of these
structures (see, e.g., Jurafsky et al. 2001;Bellet al. 2003;Gahl&Garnsey2004;Frank&
Jaeger 2008;Bellet al. 2009; Moore-Cantwell 2013; Kurumada & Jaeger 2015; Norcliffe
& Jaeger 2016; Kurumada & Grimm 2017; for on overview, see also Rose 2017:34). For
morphology, paradigmatic and syntagmatic predictability are kept apart (see, e.g., Cohen
2014; Rose 2017). Paradigmatic predictability species the probability of occurrence of
one particular form of a word paradigm, in contrast to the probability of occurrence of
other forms of the same paradigm. Beyond this point, we do not consider paradigmatic
predictability in the current paper. Instead, we focus on the concept of syntagmatic
predictability, which describes how likely it is that a form occurs in a speciccontext
or environment.
Some studies have analyzed the characteristics of sagainst the background of
syntagmatic predictability. For Spanish, there is some, but overall inconclusive,
evidence that the probability of reduction or deletion of sincreases if the grammatical
information expressed by the sis redundant and, hence, highly predictable (see, e.g.,
Poplack 1980; Hundley 1987;Erker2010; Torreira & Ernestus 2012). For instance, in
un par de cervezas a couple of beers,thesattached to the noun is less important for
the detection of the plural number value since un par de also signals plurality (see
Hundley 1987: 893). For English, two studies are relevant in our context. Cohen
(2014) found, among other aspects, that the duration of the English word-nal verbal s
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sufx, indicating singular agreement (e.g. reads), becomes shorter when the probability of
singular agreement rises.
The key reference in connection to our present investigation is, however, another one.
Rose (2017:1213, chapter 3) investigated the effect of syntagmatic predictability on the
duration of word-nal sin New Zealand English. On the basis of corpus data, she found
that the sis reduced if it and the plurality of the noun are more predictable in the
environment. For instance, the probability of a plural noun containing the ssufxis
higher if a word like various precedes the plural noun than if a word like pretty
appears. Roses(2017) analysis revealed that only the preceding context (e.g. various)
but not the following one has an impact on the duration of the plural s. On the one
hand, her work supports our hypothesis that the sbecomes longer if syntagmatic
predictability is lower. On the other hand, since our own study to be presented in
section 3differs from Rose (2017) in several respects, it will contribute further insights
into the effects of the environment on the acoustic realization of a sufx. A rst, but
minor, difference between Rose (2017) and our own analysis is the variety of English
examined: while she concentrated on New Zealand English, our participants are
speakers of North American English. Having access to data from more than one variety
provides us with a broader picture of the subject. Second, while Rose (2017) restricts
her analysis to the word immediately preceding or following the target plural noun, our
test sentences contain only cases in which the second word before or the second word
after the target plural noun represents, or does not represent, an additional plurality
marker (e.g. The/These blue cabs always break/broke down). The advantage of our
design is that we can exclude the potential inuence of the phonetic environment on
the target noun. That is, since blue is placed between the determiner and cabs,the
distinct phonetic structure of the and these does not affect the acoustic realization of
cabs.Third,whileRose(2017) relies on the automatically extracted sdurations of the
corpora, our data is segmented manually using a clearly dened protocol. Although her
dataset is quite large, manual segmentation is overall more reliable, in particular if one
considers conversational speech (see, e.g., Schiel, Draxler & Harrington 2011;
Schuppler et al. 2014). Most parts of the corpora used in Rose (2017)werebasedon
interviews, which contain conversational speech. Fourth, Rose (2017)isnotinterested
in the morphosyntactic phenomenon of number agreement, as we are, but collapses a
quite diverse set of items that signal plurality to a greater (e.g. various,six)orsmaller
extent (e.g. pretty,of). We are, in contrast, specically concerned with two types of
plurality markers, namely these and present tense verbs. Fifth, Rose (2017) includes
both the voiceless and voiced variant of the plural sufx; we, in contrast, concentrate
on the voiced one only, since ndings regarding the voiced /z/ are generally more
homogenous than those for the voiceless /s/ (see section 2.2). Sixth, and crucially, the
results from Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021), which form the origin of the present study,
are not compatible with those from Rose (2017): while she concludes that the plural s
is longer if the plurality can be less predicted on the basis of the preceding word,
Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021) did not nd an effect for the determiner, that is, the
word appearing earlier than the target plural noun. Moreover, while Rose (2017)did
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not detect an effect for theword following the plural noun, Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021)
found evidence to suggest that the verb tense, with the verb following the noun, plays a
role in that the sduration increases for past tense verb forms. These conicting results,
together with the more reliable segmentation strategy and the benets of our less
diverse and neatly controlled experiment, explains the need for the novel study
presented in the next section.
3 Methodology
We conducted a studyin which subjects read sentences containing English plural nouns in
four different agreement conditions, created on the basis of the two factors Determiner
(the versus these) and Tense (present versus past). We investigated whether the
duration of the word-nal sdepends on overt morphosyntactic agreement.
3.1 Subjects
Thirty-eight native speakers of North American English with a mean age of 29.3 years
(SD: 6.6 years) participated in the study (24 female, 14 male). They had an academic
background, corrected or corrected-to-normal vision, and declared no speech disorder.
3.2 Materials
Sixteen English nouns formed the center of the materials. They were monosyllabic,
regular plurals, singular-dominant (had a higher frequency in the singular than in the
plural), inanimate, and contained the voiced /z/ word-nally in the plural. The nouns
were embedded in 16 different test sentences, which, in turn, had the four variants
given in (1).
(1) (a) The blue cabs always break down.
(b) The blue cabs always broke down.
(c) These blue cabs always break down.
(d) These blue cabs always broke down.
The four versions of each sentence differed with respect to (i) the determiner at the
beginning of the sentence (the versus these) and (ii) the verb tense (present versus
past). All of the 16 test sentences and the respective variants are presented in appendix
A. In (1a), the determiner the does not specify the number value of the following
noun, it could be both a singular and a plural noun form. As opposed to this, the verb
form in (1a), a present tense form, clearly signals plurality, since the singular noun
would take the verb form breaks. In (1b), neither the determiner nor the verb form
indicates plurality, and could occur not only with a plural but also with a singular
noun. In (1c), both the determiner and the verb tense signal plurality. Finally, in (1d),
only the determiner does so. In sum, apart from the ssufx on the target noun (e.g.
cabs), there are two additional plurality markers in (1c), one in (1a) and (1d), and none
in (1b).
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Each of the16 sentences contained an irregular verb with the samenumber of syllables
in the present and past tense, resulting in four different test versions with the same length
(see (1)). As illustrated in (1), the four sentence variants were only minimally different from
each other. With the exception of the determiner and the verb tense, the four variants of each
sentence were exactly identical and we therefore controlled our test materials for syntactic,
phonological and phonetic aspects. The ssufx and the target noun, whose durations were
measured in the analysis, were placed in the same sentence type and position, and between
the same words. Doing so, we further controlled for bigram frequencies of the sequences
preceding word + target nounand target noun + following word.
3.3 Procedure
The experiment was conducted in a silent room. Subjects were seated about 30
centimeters (12 inches) from a large-diaphragm condenser microphone
4
and 60
centimeters (24 inches) from a computer screen.
5
The sentences were read silently rst
and then aloud while the subjects were recorded with Praat (Boersma & Weenink
2020). All sentences were left-aligned, appeared in a single line in the middle of the
screen, and were written in the same font type and size.
Participants produced each of the 16 test sentences in the four conditions introduced in
(1), reading out a total of 64 test sentences. Subjects therefore served as their own control,
and we balanced the study for the issue of inter-subject variation. Moreover, we included
64 ller sentences in order to minimize the inuence of one version of a sentence on the
same sentence in another condition. A further 31 sentences were placed between one
version of a sentence (e.g. (1a)) and the next variant of the same sentence (e.g. (1b)).
The order of the four experimental conditions described in (1) was counterbalanced
both within and across subjects. Also, the order of the items varied across participants.
3.4 Data analysis
3.4.1 Data preparation and segmentation
A total of 2,432 test cases (38 subjects x 64 test cases per subject) were part of the
experiment. The dataset was reduced by 98 les (4%) due to slips of the tongue and
technical problems. The remaining 2,334 sound les were phonetically segmented in
Praat. All productions of a particular noun (e.g. cabs) from the same speaker were
analyzed together in order to increase the segmentation consistency. Both the
spectrogram and the waveform were used to detect the beginning and end of the
word-nal [z]. Spectrum settings of 5,000 to 11,000 Hertz (Hz) facilitated the
recognition of the fricatives. We relied on the acoustic characteristics of the fricative
and segmentation steps from the literature to develop an appropriate segmentation
strategy (see, e.g., Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996;Ladefoged2003; Turk, Nakai &
4
Røde NT USB (transmission range: 20 Hz to 20 kHz; limit sound pressure level: 110 dB SPL).
5
Acer Aspire (15.6 inch / 39.6 cm).
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Sugahara 2006;Machač& Skarnitzl 2009; Schlechtweg & Härtl 2020), which was the
same as the one used in Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021) (see also gure 1). That is,
increased energy in the higher frequencies, visible in the spectrogram, functioned as
the primary criterion to nd the beginning and end of the target fricative. Visible
fricative noise in the waveform represented the second criterion. If the two criteria did
not coincide, priority was given to the primary one.
3.4.2 Statistical analysis and modeling
Having segmented the sound les, we rst considered the simple descriptive statistics of
the data. In a neatly controlled study like ours, these values give us a rst idea of how the
different conditions behave. Further, we relied on the program R (R Core Team 2021), the
lme4 package (Bates et al. 2015), and the lmerTest package (Kuznetsova et al. 2020)to
statistically analyze the data using linear mixed effects models (see, e.g., Winter 2020).
6
Figure 1. Segmentation of [z] using waveform (top), spectrogram (middle) and Praat TextGrid
(bottom). Taken from Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021) (with permission)
6
The tidyverse package (Wickham et al. 2019) was also involved in the data analysis.
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Models were tted for the two response variables DurationSufx (= absolute sduration)
and RelativeDurationSufx, the latter being dened as the quotient of the absolute s
duration and the absolute word duration.
7
For each of the two response variables, the
following steps were implemented.
Statistical outliers in the absolute or relative sdurations, dened as values plus and
minus 2.5 standard deviations from the mean (see, e.g., Loewen & Plonsky 2016:
134), were discarded from the dataset. The sdurations were then log transformed
(to the base 10). Determiner (the versus these), Tense (present versus past)
and their interaction were entered as the central xed effects in the models.
Log10SpeechRate_z, the log-transformed (to the base 10), centered and
standardized speech rate, represented a control xedeffect.Speechratereferstothe
quotient of the number of syllables of the whole sentence and the duration of
the sentence measured in seconds. We further included Log10Frequency_z, the
log-transformed (to the base 10), centered and standardized frequency of the target
nouns as specied in the Google Books Ngram Viewer (https://books.google.com/
ngrams) for American English, and Bigram_z, the centered and standardized counts
of the sequence target noun + following word(e.g. cabs always)intheGoogle
Books Ngram Viewer, in the initial model. Due to zeroes in the dataset, the bigrams
were not log transformed. Note that our experiment had actually been controlled for
many aspects prior to the study. Since we used the same nouns and sentences in all
conditions (with the exception of the/these and the verb tense), the frequencies and
bigrams were balanced across the conditions. Nevertheless, we examined whether
the two play a role overall in that, for instance, higher frequency triggers shorter s
durations. Since we are interested in the duration of the sufx / the end of the word,
we consider the bigram target noun + following wordonly(andnotthebigram
preceding word + target noun).
For each response variable, we started model tting with a model with the maximal
random effects structure, consisting of the intercepts for Subject and Item and the four
random slopes for Determiner by Subject, Determiner by Item, Tense by Subject and
Tense by Item. Three of these four random slopes did not remain in the model since
the maximal and the other random effects structures (i.e., those with the two intercepts
and three, two or one random slope(s)) were not appropriate (Singular tissue) and
therefore manually and in a step-by-step manner simplied. It is well known from the
literature that complex random effects structures can cause problems (see, e.g., Barr
et al. 2013; Matuschek et al. 2017; Cohen & Kang 2018; Martin Schweinberger p.c.),
hence we opted for the reduced model. In the analysis of the absolute sdurations, the
only model containing (a) random slope(s) that was appropriate was the one with the
slope for Determiner by Item; in the analysis of the relative sdurations, it was the
model with the slope for Determiner by Subject. The two random intercepts were part
of these models, too.
7
We relied on t by maximum likelihood during the model tting process (see, e.g., Field et al.2012:879).
11IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
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The models containing the xed and random effects structure as specied above
were then reduced step by step by removing non-signicant xed effects from
the model. Non-signicant factors were excluded on the basis of the R column Pr
(>|t|), removing the factor with the highest value and a value greater than 0.05 at
each step.
8
Once we had a model with signicant xed effects only, we additionally
veried whether the criteria mentioned in Plag et al. (2017: 194) went in the same
direction. Plag et al. (2017: 194) relied on three criteria, or tests, to decide whether
aspecic factor remained in the model. The rst criterion refers to the t-statistics,
which had to be greater than 2 or smaller than -2 for a factor to remain in the model.
Moreover, a signicant improvement of the t of the model should occur if the factor is
part of the model, in comparison to the model without the factor, and this would be
indicated by a pvalue smaller than .05 when contrasting the model with and the
model without the respective factor in an ANOVA. Finally, the Akaike Information
Criterion (AIC) needed to be smaller if the factor was in the model, in comparison
to the model without the factor (see also, e.g., Pinheiro & Bates 2000:10;Wu
2010:90).
After completion of the manual reduction of the model, we additionally performed an
automatic elimination of the non-signicant xed effects using the step function of the
lmerTest package (Kuznetsova et al. 2020; see also, e.g., Lohmann 2020:436)tosee
whether the result is the same.
3.5 Results
Figures 2 to 7 summarize the descriptive statistics of the datasets without statistical
outliers, for the absolute and relative sdurations, respectively.
Overall, the differences between the mean values of the individual groups are subtle,
and in some cases, there is no difference at all. In an additional step of the descriptive
analysis, we examine how consistent and stable the results detected so far are by using
a method applied in Durvasula & Liter (2020:1978) (see also Schlechtweg & Corbett
2021). For this purpose, consider gure 8. We see the cumulative absolute sufx
durations of the four conditions for the 38 subjects. That is, 1on the x-axis refers to
the average absolute sufx durations of the four conditions of the rst subject only. 6,
however, does not simply refer to the sixth subject, but to the cumulative average
absolute sufx durations of the four conditions of the rst six subjects. Looking at this
graph, we get an idea of the development of our results with more and more subjects.
We see that the development of the four conditions is comparable and homogeneous
starting approximately at 21on the x-axis. Put differently, once 21 subjects had been
tested, the curves of the conditions developed in more or less the same way. On the
basis of this gure, we have no reason to assume that drastic changes between the
8
If Determiner or Tense showed the highest value at a step, the non-signicant interaction of the two was removed
rst.
12 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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Figure 2. Error bars of absolute sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,307 values)
9
Figure 3. Error bars of absolute sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,307 values)
9
This and all of the following gures were created in Minitab (Minitab 2019).
13IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
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conditionswould arise if more subjects participated in the experiment. Hence, we can say
that the picture drawn above is robust, and the differences across the conditions are
consistently small.
Figure 4. Error bars of absolute sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,307 values)
Figure 5. Error bars of relative sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,314 values)
14 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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To sum up our ndings so far, we can say that the differences between groups are either
small or absent, and this trend is stable and robust. Nevertheless, an inferential statistical
analysis is still needed to verify whether the differences are signicant, even if they are
Figure 6. Error bars of relative sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,314 values)
Figure 7. Error bars of relative sdurations, 95 percent condence intervals, the diamond symbols
represent the means, reduced dataset without statistical outliers (2,314 values)
15IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
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small. Further, taking a potential inuence of speech rate into account is essential, even in a
thoroughly controlled experiment. The results for the xed effects of our nal
mixed-effects models, after the exclusion of non-signicant xed effects, are given in
tables 3 and 4; the results for the random effects are given in appendices B and C. Note
that the same xed-effects structures were found in the automatic analysis with the step
function.
Figure 8. Cumulative mean sdurations by subjects in seconds
Table 3. Fixed-effects statistics of the mixed-effects model of absolute sdurations in
seconds
Estimate SE df t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept) 1.151e+00 2.397e02 2.425e+01 47.997 <2e16***
Determinerthese
Log10SpeechRate_z
2.269e02
6.788e02
4.507e03
4.249e03
1.852e+01
2.165e+03
5.035
15.977
7.93e05***
<2e16***
Table 4. Fixed-effects statistics of the mixed-effects model of relative sdurations
Estimate SE df t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept) 7.602e01 2.508e02 2.008e+01 30.307 <2e16***
Log10SpeechRate_z 1.162e02 3.533e03 2.167e+03 3.287 0.00103**
16 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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First of all, and unsurprisingly, the sduration decreases with increasing speech rate,
which is expressed in the negative estimate for Log10SpeechRate_z. This holds for
both the analysis of absolute and the analysis of relative durations. Second, and
interestingly, we detect an effect of Determiner in the analysis of the absolute s
durations, that is, sdurations are longer when the appears as the determiner in contrast to
when these occurs. The difference is expressed by the fact that the estimate of the log
transformed sduration of Determinerthese is negative and thus smaller than the
intercept, which represents the baseline Determinerthe. The difference, if back-
transformed from the logarithm, is about 0.0036 seconds. The criteria mentioned in Plag
et al. (2017: 194) support the ndings, both for Determiner and Log10SpeechRate_z.
That is, the tstatistics of the signicant xed effects are smaller than -2, each factor
signicantly improves the t of the model, and the AIC is smaller if the factor is part of
the model. Hence, we can state that (i) the sis longer in absolute terms in combination
with the in comparison to these and (ii) the sduration increases with decreasing speech rate.
4 Summary and discussion
Previous research has shown that the duration of the English word-nal sdepends on both
its function and its context. There are two competing factors here. On the one hand,
variation exists between different types of s,suchasafxal and non-afxal s,or
different types of afxal s(see, e.g., Plag et al. 2017). On the other hand, reduction
and lengthening of the sis connected to its predictability in a given context (see, e.g.,
Rose 2017). The current article expanded research of the second type and examined
whether overt morphosyntactic agreement affects the duration of afxal s.Twomajor
results emerged in the analyses. First, nounverb agreement did not affect the s
duration. That is, the sufx duration on the noun did not differ when there was a past
tense verb form following (hence no overt agreement) as compared to when there was
a present tense verb (hence overt agreement). The nounverb agreement effect was
found in Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021) but could not be replicated here. It is possible
that the effect detected in this earlier study derived from other differences in the test
sentences. Crucially, the current study was carefully controlled for such possible
factors and included a much larger dataset, and the effect did not arise. Second, noun
determiner agreement did affect the duration of the sin the expected direction. This
effect, a subtle one, occurred in the analysis of the absolute duration. If the preceded a
plural noun (no overt noundeterminer agreement present), the swas longer than if
these was used (overtly agreeing with the plural noun). In sum, our experiment gives
slight evidence in favor of the idea that the sis reduced if the plural noun has an
agreeing determiner (these). Nounverb agreement, in contrast, has no impact on the
duration of s.
There are two aspects which force us to interpret the results with caution: rst, the
differences between the the and these conditions are small and, second, signicance
between the two was only reached in the analysis of the absolute durations. Without an
effect of relative durations, we do not have evidence that the percentage the sufxtakes
17IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
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within the word increases if the precedes the target noun. Nevertheless, we must keep in
mind that our results are based ona large dataset (2,307 test cases in the absolute duration
analysis and 2,314 test cases in the relative duration analysis), which increases the
reliability of the ndings. Looking at other comparable studies on the duration of the
English s, we see that our experiment is far more comprehensive than the
investigations conducted by, for instance, Walsh & Parker (1983), Schwarzlose &
Bradlow (2001), Plag et al. (2017), Seyfarth et al. (2018), Schmitz et al. (2021)and
Schlechtweg & Corbett (2021). Therefore, we believe that the effect we detected for
the absolute sufx durations is not irrelevant and is discussed in more detail below.
Several established psycholinguistic and linguistic models with a feed forward spirit
(e.g. Levelt 1989) have been criticized on the basis of empirical data over the last two
decades. Their theoretical conceptions seem to be too rigid and inexible when it
comes to the interplay of different types of linguistic information and cannot explain,
for instance, why the acoustic output is affected by morphological complexity, since no
connection between the two domains is assumed in such theories. The effect detected
in the present experiment is equally incompatible with models of the above-named
character. In a strict feed forward world, the word form of the English plural noun
would be created, its discrete phonological units would be specied, and the acoustic
sequence would be realized. Since the phonological structure is identical independently
of whether the or these precedes the noun in the sentence, no acoustic distinctions are
expected. There is some evidence for a contrast in our study, however, and this calls for
amoreexibleapproach,asdescribedin,forinstance,Dell(1986) and Pierrehumbert
(2001,2002), allowing the possibility that higher-order domains such as morphosyntax
can have a direct connection to phonetics and the concrete realization of a word or
word part.
The direction of the determiner effect, with the leading to a longer s,nds support in the
literature. In a phrase containing the,thesis more informative in that it signalsthe number
value alone, or, more precisely, without an additional plurality indicator on thedeterminer.
In contrast, if these precedes a plural noun, it already species that the following noun is a
plural one and the sdoes not contribute a new piece of information. Previous literature has
shown that more informative elements are lengthened (e.g. Engelhardt & Ferreira 2014),
and this is what happens in our data, too: if the sis preceded by the and plays the crucial
role in the expression of plurality, it is longer, in comparison to cases with these in the
determiner position. Considering syntagmatic predictability, there has been evidence that
the sis enhanced if it is less predictable (e.g. Rose 2017). So, if words like various
precede a regular plural noun, they tell us that the noun must contain the sand the scan
be reduced. Other words, like pretty, are neutral in turn and do not predict the occurrence
of s, which is therefore likely to be lengthened. Again, our effect ts in nicely here, since
the sturned out to be longer if the determiner (the) did not predict its occurrence.
Thus while the effect that we report is surprising, it has a reassuring regularity. In the
current experiment the effect is found with a plural determiner but not with a past tense
verb. The reverse would have been truly remarkable: it would imply that the length of
afxal sis affected by the presence or absence of overt agreement on the verb, which is
18 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
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still to be pronounced. What is the possible basis for the difference between our result for
attributive agreement and predicate agreement? There are two candidates: syntactic
structure and linear precedence. In our sentence these blue cabs always break down,the
determiner these is within the same nominal phrase as cabs, while break is more distant
syntactically. Equally, these precedes cabs while break follows. Both syntactic structure
and linear precedence are well established as affecting agreement (Corbett 2006: 180,
20630), and could explain why we detected an effect for Determiner but not for Tense.
5 Conclusion
It is by now well known that ne acoustic detail can mirror different types of linguistic
information. A case in point in this research area is the duration of the English
word-nal s, which has been shown to be modulated by speakers on the basis of both
its function and context. On the functional side, afxal and non-afxal sdiffer, and
even distinct types of afxal sare heterogenous. The current experiment adds a further
piece of evidence supporting the idea that the sduration is also adjusted in specic
contexts: overt noundeterminer agreement leads to a reduction of the s. The effect is
subtle, of course, and needs to be replicated, but is compatible with research arguing
for a more signicant and exible role of the acoustic output in language.
Authorsaddresses:
Department of English and American Studies
Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg
Ammerländer Heerstraße 114-118
26129 Oldenburg
Germany
marcelschlechtweg@gmail.com
Surrey Morphology Group
University of Surrey
Guildford
Surrey GU2 7XH
United Kingdom
g.corbett@surrey.ac.uk
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Appendix A: Test sentences
The blue cabs always break down.
The blue cabs always broke down.
These blue cabs always break down.
These blue cabs always broke down.
The large tags really make the price clear.
The large tags really made the price clear.
These large tags really make the price clear.
These large tags really made the price clear.
23IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674322000223 Published online by Cambridge University Press
The ripe pears usually fall from the tree.
The ripe pears usually fell from the tree.
These ripe pears usually fall from the tree.
These ripe pears usually fell from the tree.
The wide screens eventually become useless.
The wide screens eventually became useless.
These wide screens eventually become useless.
These wide screens eventually became useless.
The old cars unfortunately have mechanical problems.
The old cars unfortunately had mechanical problems.
These old cars unfortunately have mechanical problems.
These old cars unfortunately had mechanical problems.
The thick nails easily hold up the picture on the wall.
The thick nails easily held up the picture on the wall.
These thick nails easily hold up the picture on the wall.
These thick nails easily held up the picture on the wall.
The short rides regularly take an hour.
The short rides regularly took an hour.
These short rides regularly take an hour.
These short rides regularly took an hour.
The cheap creams often sting her skin.
The cheap creams often stung her skin.
These cheap creams often sting her skin.
These cheap creams often stung her skin.
The rough waves regularly shake the beach house.
The rough waves regularly shook the beach house.
These rough waves regularly shake the beach house.
These rough waves regularly shook the beach house.
The soft plums already stink.
The soft plums already stank.
These soft plums already stink.
These soft plums already stank.
The big stones immediately sink in the lake.
The big stones immediately sank in the lake.
24 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674322000223 Published online by Cambridge University Press
These big stones immediately sink in the lake.
These big stones immediately sank in the lake.
The new trains clearly speak for themselves.
The new trains clearly spoke for themselves.
These new trains clearly speak for themselves.
These new trains clearly spoke for themselves.
The deep ponds always freeze during the winter.
The deep ponds always froze during the winter.
These deep ponds always freeze during the winter.
These deep ponds always froze during the winter.
The dried gs amazingly grow sweeter and sweeter.
The dried gs amazingly grew sweeter and sweeter.
These dried gs amazingly grow sweeter and sweeter.
These dried gs amazingly grew sweeter and sweeter.
The small phones unexpectedly ring very loudly.
The small phones unexpectedly rang very loudly.
These small phones unexpectedly ring very loudly.
These small phones unexpectedly rang very loudly.
The thin pads often fall out.
The thin pads often fell out.
These thin pads often fall out.
These thin pads often fell out.
Appendix B: Random effects statistics of the mixed-effects model of absolute sdurations
in seconds
Variance SD Corr
Subject (Intercept) 4.415e03 0.066446
Item (Intercept) 7.199e03 0.084849
Item (Determinerthese) 3.581e05 0.005984 0.89
Residual 9.501e03 0.097473
25IS MORPHOSYNTACTIC AGREEMENT REFLECTED IN ACOUSTIC DETAIL?
https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674322000223 Published online by Cambridge University Press
Appendix C: Random effects statisticsof the mixed-effects model of relative sdurations
10
Variance SD
Subject (Intercept) 0.002663 0.05161
Item (Intercept) 0.008894 0.09431
Residual 0.007244 0.08511
10
Since the xedeffect Determiner was not signicant and therefore not part of the nal model,the random slope for
Determiner by Subject did not remain in the model either.
26 MARCEL SCHLECHTWEG AND GREVILLE G. CORBETT
https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674322000223 Published online by Cambridge University Press
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