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Articulatory gestures as phonological units*

  • Catherine P. Browman (a1) and Louis Goldstein (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 20 October 2008

We have argued that dynamically defined articulatory gestures are the appropriate units to serve as the atoms of phonological representation. Gestures are a natural unit, not only because they involve task-oriented movements of the articulators, but because they arguably emerge as prelinguistic discrete units of action in infants. The use of gestures, rather than constellations of gestures as in Root nodes, as basic units of description makes it possible to characterise a variety of language patterns in which gestural organisation varies. Such patterns range from the misorderings of disordered speech through phonological rules involving gestural overlap and deletion to historical changes in which the overlap of gestures provides a crucial explanatory element.

Gestures can participate in language patterns involving overlap because they are spatiotemporal in nature and therefore have internal duration. In addition, gestures differ from current theories of feature geometry by including the constriction degree as an inherent part of the gesture. Since the gestural constrictions occur in the vocal tract, which can be charactensed in terms of tube geometry, all the levels of the vocal tract will be constricted, leading to a constriction degree hierarchy. The values of the constriction degree at each higher level node in the hierarchy can be predicted on the basis of the percolation principles and tube geometry. In this way, the use of gestures as atoms can be reconciled with the use of Constriction degree at various levels in the vocal tract (or feature geometry) hierarchy.

The phonological notation developed for the gestural approach might usefully be incorporated, in whole or in part, into other phonologies. Five components of the notation were discussed, all derived from the basic premise that gestures are the primitive phonological unit, organised into gestural scores. These components include (1) constriction degree as a subordinate of the articulator node and (2) stiffness (duration) as a subordinate of the articulator node. That is, both CD and duration are inherent to the gesture. The gestures are arranged in gestural scores using (3) articulatory tiers, with (4) the relevant geometry (articulatory, tube or feature) indicated to the left of the score and (5) structural information above the score, if desired. Association lines can also be used to indicate how the gestures are combined into phonological units. Thus, gestures can serve both as characterisations of articulatory movement data and as the atoms of phonological representation.

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