Colloquium: Catherine Best

Dr. Best is affiliated with the MARCS Institute and School of Humanities & Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney, Australia, and with Haskins Laboratories. She is an ISCA Distinguished Lecturer (2014-2015: International Speech Communication Association), and the editor of Phonetica.

"Devil or angel in the details? Phonetic variation and the complementary principles of phonological distinctiveness and phonological constancy"

The phonetic patterns of ambient speech provide the raw materials for infants to discover the principles of their native language. By 10-12 months they show attunement to phonetic variations that are relevant in their language, and declining sensitivity to distinctions that are irrelevant to it, laying the cornerstone for mature listeners’ rapid and automatic recognition of native words. But what makes a phonetic distinction ‘relevant’ versus ‘irrelevant?’ The answer lies in how listeners relate the phonetic details of a word to its phonological structure, while taking into account the extensive phonetic variations in a given word across talkers, speech styles, and regional accents. Those phonetic variations are not “noise,” instead providing crucial information about two complementary principles that together define the phonological structure of words. One principle is phonological distinctiveness, which refers to language-specific minimal contrasts that meaningfully distinguish otherwise identical spoken forms. The complementary principle is phonological constancy, which permits listeners to recognize a word across talker and accent differences. A spoken word’s structure is co-defined by the phonetic variations that alter its phonological form and those that leave it intact. Discovering the balance between those two sides of native speech variability requires both episodic and abstract learning, which moves the child beyond attunement and into the realm of word recognition, and provides the foundation for adults' rapid, automatic recognition of native language words.