Monday, September 12, 2011

Where the tongue hits its limits

LMU phonetician wins prestigious EU grant

Marianne Pouplier, a phonetician of the Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing at LMU Munich has won one of the prestigious Starting Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). She received the accolade, worth approximately 1.5 million euros, for a proposed project on "Stability and change in sound patterns of the world's languages". With its Starting Grants the ERC aims to facilitate cutting-edge research by supporting especially innovative projects proposed by highly creative young academics.

The world's languages are extraordinarily diverse, and yet there are certain sound patterns that turn up in most, or even all of them over and over again. For instance, all languages distinguish between consonants and vowels, and most words are made up of more or less regular sequences of consonants and vowels. Nevertheless, there are sound structures that turn up very rarely. In Georgian, for instance, there are words that consist entirely of consonants. One example is the word "prtskvn", which means "to peel". For linguists, the question of the limits of linguistic diversity is of great interest, because universal patterns can tell us something about the evolutionary development of language as such, and throw light on the significance of physiological and cognitive factors in its origin and diversification. Exactly why particular sound patterns are rarely encountered is an issue that is hotly debated among linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists. In her project, Marianne Pouplier wants to clarify whether or not rare sound patterns are really "tongue-twisters" – sequences that are much more difficult to articulate, discriminate perceptually and harder to learn than others. If that is so, it would explain why they occur infrequently. To tackle the problem, she has chosen an empirical approach. She will use ultrasound imaging to observe the movements of the tongue, in order to analyze the complexity of the motor patterns required to produce rare sound sequences. Furthermore, she will use perceptual tests to study whether the brain actually takes more time to process rare sound patterns. In its use of a combination of empirical methods, the project suggests new ways of probing the nature of speech universals and their significance for the cognitive processing of sound sequences in natural languages. (göd)

Marianne Pouplier studied German and English at the University of Freiburg, and graduated 1998. From 1999 until 2003 she was a member of the scientific staff of Haskins Laboratories, and obtained her PhD from Yale University in 2003 (USA) . She then served as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Universities of Maryland (USA) and Edinburgh (UK). Since 2007 Pouplier has led an Emmy Noether Junior Research Group at LMU's Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing. The group focuses on aspects of "Timing and Cohesion of Gestures in Speech Production".

EurekAlert. 2011. "Where the tongue hits its limits ". EurekAlert. Posted: August 26, 2011. Available online:

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