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WA Distinguished Professors’ Lectures Series - Prof. John Harris (University College London)

WA Distinguished Professors’ Lectures Series features internationally renowned scholars visiting the Faculty of English to share their research and professional expertise with the faculty and students. This time we have the honour to host Prof. John Harris (University College London), who will deliver a lecture “Where does phonological knowledge stop? – Simplicity versus naturalness in the learnability of phonotactic patterns” that will take place on 26 March 2021 (Friday) at 1:15 p.m. via Zoom.

Where does phonological knowledge stop?
Simplicity versus naturalness in the learnability
of phonotactic patterns

26 March 2021 (Friday) at 1:15 p.m. via Zoom.


•    Zoom Meeting URL: (equivalent short link:
•    Meeting ID: 985 2744 7827
•    Passcode: h9N5MR

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Naturalness in phonological patterns is often observed to correlate with regularity and structural simplicity. What are the relative contributions of these different factors to speakers’ ability to internalise phonological patterns? To answer this question, we need to investigate patterns where the factors can be decoupled. We present the results of a non-word acceptability study that takes a step in this direction by investigating a phonotactic pattern that is regular and simple but not natural.
The pattern is one that restricts consonants following /aw/ in English to coronals (hence mouth, about, sound, powder, but nothing along the lines of */awb/, */awk/). The pattern (‘awT’) is phonologically regular, structurally simple, and lexically general. All of these factors are known to promote the ability of speakers to learn phonotactic patterns (see the literature review in Moreton & Pater 2012a). It has been claimed elsewhere that awT is also phonetically natural (Kubozono 2001, Nevins 2012), another factor known to enhance learnability (Moreton & Pater 2012b). We present comparative and historical evidence showing that the pattern is in fact not natural but is rather the synchronically accidental outcome of a series of largely unrelated sound changes.
The awT pattern might be known to phonologists, but is it internalised by native speakers? To investigate this question, we asked English-speaking listeners to judge the acceptability of non-words containing /aw/ followed by a range of different consonants. The results of the study indicate that, if speakers have any tacit awareness of awT at all, it is not encapsulated in anything like a phonologist’s rule or constraint. Where a coronal preference can be detected with /aw/, it is no different than what can be observed with other long vowels investigated in the study. Moreover, the preference is influenced by lexical neighbourhood factors, which suggests that participants were making on-the-fly judgements of how much the non-words resemble real words.
We conclude that awT is a case where phonologists know more about a phonotactic pattern than speakers know.


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