Events / ILST seminar: Sang-Im Lee-Kim

ILST seminar: Sang-Im Lee-Kim

February 17, 2023
1:30 PM - 2:45 PM

3401 Walnut Street, Room 401B, 3401 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

Sang-Im Lee-Kim
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University (NYCU), Taiwan


Unmerging the sibilant merger in Taiwan Mandarin: Phonetic, phonological, and social factors


According to Garde’s principle, a merger, once completed, cannot be reversed by linguistic means. In cases of near-mergers, however, a merger may be reversed in nonce vowel production (Hay et al. 2013) or in tone imitation (Lin et al. 2021). In this talk, I present empirical evidence from a series of production tasks to shed light on the nature of the alveolar-retroflex sibilant merger in Taiwan Mandarin. The results of the interactive and spontaneous imitation tasks demonstrated that speakers who merged the contrast produced the retroflex sounds as distinct from their alveolar counterparts, revealing hidden structures in the mental lexicon. Specific patterns of the merger reversal were enriched by phonetic and social factors, however. The merged categories were unmerged by making reference to the individual’s phonetic space; speakers with higher baseline spectral frequencies restored the underlying retroflex category, and those with lower baselines retrieved the alveolars through dentalization. Furthermore, the merger reversal showed preferential convergence conditioned by gender—female speakers were less willing to accommodate socially undesirable strong retroflexion. Taken together, phonetically approximated categories may be realized with full distinctions under certain linguistic situations, revealing speakers’ abstract phonological knowledge, but specific patterns were further shaped by a careful calibration of one’s phonetic space and the desired phonetic norms of the speech community.