Regressive place assimilation is a form of pronunciation variation in which a word-final alveolar sound takes the place of articulation of a following labial or velar sound, as when green boat is pronounced greem boat. How listeners recover the intended word (e.g., green, given greem) has been a major focus of spoken word recognition theories. However, the extent to which this variation occurs in casual, unscripted speech has previously not been reported. Two studies of pronunciation variation were conducted using a spontaneous speech corpus. First, phonetic labeling data were used to identify contexts in which assimilation could occur, namely, when a word-final alveolar stop (/t/, /d/, or /n/) was followed by a velar or labial consonant. Assimilation was indicated relatively infrequently, while deletion, glottalization, or canonical pronunciations were more often indicated. Moreover, lexical frequency was shown to affect pronunciation; high frequency lexical items showed more types of variation. Second, acoustic analyses showed that neither place of articulation cues (indicated by second formant variation) nor relative amplitude was sufficient to distinguish assimilated from deleted and canonical variants; only when closure duration was additionally taken into account were these three variant types distinguishable. Implications for theories of word recognition are discussed.
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