The study is concerned with the relative synchronic stability of three contrastive sibilant fricatives /s ʂ ɕ/ in Polish. Tongue movement data were collected from nine first-language Polish speakers producing symmetrical real and non-word CVCV sequences in three vowel contexts. A Gaussian model was used to classify the sibilants from spectral information in the noise and from formant frequencies at vowel onset. The physiological analysis showed an almost complete separation between /s ʂ ɕ/ on tongue-tip parameters. The acoustic analysis showed that the greater energy at higher frequencies distinguished /s/ in the fricative noise from the other two sibilant categories. The most salient information at vowel onset was for /ɕ/, which also had a strong palatalizing effect on the following vowel. Whereas either the noise or vowel onset was largely sufficient for the identification of /s ɕ/ respectively, both sets of cues were necessary to separate /ʂ/ from /s ɕ/. The greater synchronic instability of /ʂ/ may derive from its high articulatory complexity coupled with its comparatively low acoustic salience. The data also suggest that the relatively late stage of /ʂ/ acquisition by children may come about because of the weak acoustic information in the vowel for its distinction from /s/.
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