Topics in Linguistic Theory: Laboratory Phonology >> Content Detail



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Course Description

The goal of this course is to prepare you to engage in experimental investigations of questions related to linguistic theory, focusing on phonetics and phonology. The course will be organized around four main topics (subject to revision):

  • Vowel inventories
  • Speech perception and the distribution of phonological contrasts
  • Intonation and the marking of focus
  • The effects of predictability on speech production

In the process of investigating these topics, we will cover some phonological theory, the basics of speech acoustics, acoustic analysis, speech perception, and experimental design. Students will develop and execute their own experimental projects during the course.


4 subjects in linguistics.

Grading and Requirements

Vowel Inventories

Cross-linguistic generalizations about the nature of inventories of vowel contrasts. How can we explain these generalizations? Lindblom's Theory of Adaptive Dispersion.

Speech Perception and the Distribution of Phonological Contrasts

Investigating the hypothesis that phonological contrasts preferentially appear in contexts where there are better perceptual cues to those contrasts (Steriade's 'licensing by cue').

Intonation and the Marking of Focus

One of the ways in which intonation affects meaning is via its role in marking focused constituents. How does this marking work?

The Effects of Predictability on Speech Production

A number of non-phonological factors have been shown to affect the phonetic realization of words, e.g. word frequency, lexical neighborhood density and contextual predictability. What is the nature of these effects? How do they interact with each other? Are they a consequence of 'listener-oriented' behavior?

Essential Background

Phonetic Theory

  1. Overview of 'the speech chain':
    • Articulatory phonetics,
    • Basic acoustics, waveforms and spectrograms,
    • Audition and perception.
  2. Articulatory-acoustic relations
    • The acoustic theory of speech production (Fant 1960, etc).
    • Contextual variation in segment realization.
  3. Speech perception
    • The problems of speech perception and lexical access.
    • Perceptual cues to contrasts.
  4. Intonation and phrasing
    • ToBI system for transcribing English intonation.

Experimental Phonetics

  1. Experimental design and elementary statistics
  2. Digital Signal Processing
    • Sampling theory
    • FFT, LPC, spectrograms, pitch tracking
    • Using PRAAT speech analysis software


A. Readings and class discussions

B. Assignments - approximately one per week

C. Final project

  • Propose an experimental test of a hypothesis (by Ses #5)
  • Run a pilot experiment
  • Present your study in class (in Ses #12)
  • Write up the project (draft due in Ses #12, final version due 10 days after Ses #12)

This is a 'communication intensive' course, so written work and presentations will be important.

A draft of the final project will have to be submitted in time for you to revise it in light of my comments.


Class participation10%
Final project presentation15%
Final project paper60%


Amazon logo Johnson, Keith. Acoustic and Auditory Phonetics. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN: 9781405101233.

Please see readings for additional texts.

Recommended Citation

For any use or distribution of these materials, please cite as follows:

Edward Flemming, course materials for 24.910 Topics in Linguistic Theory: Laboratory Phonology, Spring 2007. MIT OpenCourseWare (, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Downloaded on [DD Month YYYY].




Laboratory phonology


Basic audition

Digital signal processing


Source-filter theory

Acoustics of vowels

4Adaptive dispersion

Spectral analysis

Licensing by cue

Proposal of an experimental test of a hypothesis due
6Licensing by cue (cont.)
8The meaning of intonation

Basic statistics

Effects of the lexicon and context on speech perception

10Effects of the lexicon and context on speech perception (cont.)
11Phonetics and phonology of accent variation
12Student presentations

Draft of final project due

Final version due 10 days after Ses #12


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