Acoustic and perceptual correlates of emphasis in Arabic

Despite its importance as one of the world's major languages, Arabic has not been the topic of much phonetic research. This project aims to contribute to the description and analysis of Arabic by focusing on one of its unique features - emphasis. Emphasis is a distinctive feature of Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew that refers to a group of consonants produced with a secondary constriction in the posterior vocal tract and a primary constriction typically in the dental/alveolar region. The characteristics of emphasis are not confined to emphatic consonants themselves but can spread to adjacent segments as well. Results from our acoustic analysis of monosyllabic words indicate that, in general, the acoustic correlates of emphasis include a raised F1, lowered F2, and raised F3 in the vowel adjacent to the emphatic consonant. This pattern across the three formants suggests that emphasis involves a constriction near the epiglottis. In addition, the spectral mean of the emphatic consonants was lower than that of plain consonants.

A perception study explored whether Arabic listeners’ recognition of emphasis is based on information in the consonant or vowel. Stimuli were created by cross-splicing emphatic and plain tokens. Results show that the contribution of consonantal and vocalic information to the perception of emphasis depends on vowel quality: in the context of /a/, listeners seem to make their decision primarily based on the vowel while in the context of /i/ and /u/, properties of the consonant carry more weight in this decision.

Preliminary results can be found in:

Acoustic correlates of emphasis in Arabic. Presented at the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Saarbrücken, Germany, August 2007 (A. Jongman, W. Herd, and M. Al-Masri).

Acoustic correlates of emphatic consonants in Arabic. Presented at the 153rd meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Salt Lake City, UT., June 2007 (A. Jongman, W. Herd and M. Al-Masri).

Perception of emphasis in Urban Jordanian Arabic. Presented at the 156th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Miami, FL, November 2008 (A. Jongman, S. Combest, W. Herd, and M. Al-Masri).

We are currently analyzing results for disyllabic tokens in which the target consonant occurs in either word-initial, word-medial, or word-final position.


[Research partially supported by NSF]

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