LINGUIST List 10.931

Wed Jun 16 1999

Review: Goedemans: Weightless Segments

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  • Andreas Mengel, Review: Rob Goedemans, Weightless Segments.

    Message 1: Review: Rob Goedemans, Weightless Segments.

    Date: Tue, 08 Jun 1999 15:09:12 +0200
    From: Andreas Mengel <>
    Subject: Review: Rob Goedemans, Weightless Segments.

    Rob Goedemans, (1998) Weightless Segments, Holland Academic Graphics, The Hague. 262 pages, NLG 61.50

    Reviewed by Andreas Mengel, IMS Stuttgart.


    This book addresses the apparently universal phenomenon in stress rules for the languages of the world that syllable onsets (consonants in front of the first vowel of a syllable) are irrelevant for stress assignment whereas the weight, i.e. segmental complexity, of the rhyme (vowels and final consonants) of a syllable are good predictors for the location of stress in words. In his book Goedemans looks for phonetic and phonological explanations for this fact.

    >From results of a series of speech production experiments Goedemans concludes that the duration variation in onsets of syllables caused by more complex consonant clusters is similar to duration changes of equivalent rhyme structures. Thus, one possible explanation for the weightlessness of onsets - phonological unexploitability of onsets due to duration stability - must be dropped.

    Since acoustical measurements of speech data need not necessarily reflect their perception, psycho-acoustical experiments might shed different light on the issue. The next experiments show that (Dutch) listeners are less sensitive to duration variation in onsets than to those in changes applied to the rest of the syllable. This finding can by explained by a look at the sonority of the segments of these structures. Sonority enhances duration perception sensitivity.

    Another explanation of the relative weightlessness of onsets that is tested is the existence of a trigger in the syllable that activates the duration estimation mechanism, which - in case the trigger is located after the onset - has the result that onsets before the trigger position cannot be estimated properly. Trigger candidates are intensity maximum, the P-centre (Pompino-Marschall 1989), and the CV-transition or PIVOT. None of these candidates is proven to be a trigger, although for the PIVOT this cannot be excluded completely.

    In the last experiment it is tested whether the difference in duration perception of onset, nucleus and coda is specific to speech by using non-speech syllable signals whose spectral shape is syllable like. For the onset, nucleus and coda of these stimuli, no difference in duration perception sensitivity is found.

    In the phonological part of the book, Goedemans evaluates languages which are described in the literature as having onset sensitive stress rules since the general claim that syllable onsets are weightless is doubted by some authors, e.g. Davis (1985). Reviewing the data of these languages, alternative descriptions to account for these exceptions are provided. Goedemans concludes that it is doubtful whether these languages can still correctly be labeled as onset sensitive.

    In the conclusion Goedemans outlines an interpretation of his findings and perspectives of further research. Under the assumption that the experiments were conducted properly he supposes that physical duration cannot be seen as the phonetic correlate of phonological weight as such but only duration perception is correlated with phonological weight. The fact that the perception of properties of non-speech syllable stimuli is different from the perception of speech syllables might show that onset weightlessness and the asymmetry of duration perception is an abstract phenomenon which has its source in a linguistic centre in our brain where the abstract syllabic model contains no weight unit for onsets. For the case that part of his experiments have conceptual gaps or are based upon inappropriate stimuli, Goedemans develops further experiments to be run. Possible results and consequences for phonological models are outlined.

    Critical evaluation

    Goedemans gives very concise descriptions of the rationale behind the questions in focus and possible hypotheses. The phonetic experiments are well documented and evaluated critically. This book is well structured and the reader is provided with all necessary details to follow the experiments and the theoretical considerations. However, the theoretical assumptions and the starting point of some of the experiments need further thought. First of all weight is assumed to be an absolute property of syllables. This is the reason why it is appropriate to investigate the structure of isolated syllables. Since word stress is a phenomenon that involves at least two syllables, this assumption must be questioned. Yet, it has been shown for many languages that duration is the dominant signal property that correlates with stress location (among others Jessen et al. 1995, Potisuk et al. 1996, Sluijter et al. 1997, Mengel 1997) so the assumption that relative syllable weight, i.e. segmental complexity, duration and word stress location correlate can be taken for granted. Considering words with more than one syllable as a starting point, the question still remains why mostly only rhymes are considered in quantitative stress rules. The psycho-acoustic explanation for this fact is that the beginning of acoustic events caused by speech utterances start at the location of the P-centre, i.e. at a point in the signal where spectral change is most prominent because of a sudden energy rise (Zwicker & Fastl 1990). Phonologically speaking, within a syllable this is the transition between the onset and the rhyme. Thus, the onset of a syllable belongs to another - previous - psycho-acoustic event. As this is so, the prominence relation of the two syllables in <houses> and <blouses> is equivalent, the difference in the onsets of the first syllable does not count because the relevant psycho-acoustic entities are <ous> and <es> in these words and they are compared with respect to their duration. The longer entity is perceived as bearing stress.

    Goedemans is right in stating that onsets are weightless, yet one should add, they are weightless in as much as they do not contribute to the weight of the syllable that includes the following vowel, because psycho-acoustic syllables are marked by the beginning of vowels for the most part, and in this respect they obviously differ from articulatory syllables.


    Davis, S. (1985): Topics in syllable geometry. PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona. Jessen, M.; Marasek, K.; Schneider, K.; Clah\223en, K. (1995): Acoustic Correlates of Word Stress. International Congress of Phonetic Sciences 13, 4: 428-431. Mengel, A. (1997): Domains and Properties of Lexical Stress in German. Conference on the Word as a Phonetic Unit, Berlin. Sluijter, A.M.C.; van Heuven, V.J.; Pacilly, J.J.A. (1997): Spectral Balance as a Cue in the Perception of Linguistic Stress. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 101, 1: 503-513. Pompino-Marschall, B. (1989): On the Psychoacoustic Nature of the P-Center Phenomenon. Journal of Phonetics 17: 175-192. Potisuk, P.; Gandour, J; Harper, M.P. (1996): Acoustic Correlates of Stress in Thai. Phonetica 53: 200-220. Zwicker, E.; Fastl, H. (1990): Psychoacoustics. Facts and Models. Berlin: Springer.

    Biography of reviewer

    Andreas Mengel ( studied linguistics and communications at Technical University Berlin. He compiled the German section of a pronunciation dictionary of German names in EU funded project ONOMASTICA. He wrote his doctoral thesis about German word accent (Deutscher Wortakzent. Symbole und Signale) including phonological, phonetical and morphological analysis. At the moment he is developing standards for the uniform representation of linguistic annotation data and a query machinery in EU project MATE ( at IMS Stuttgart.