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Regular change and lexical diffusion in phonological development

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In historical linguistics, there is a long-standing debate over the extent to which diachronic sound change is regular (in the sense that it occurs simultaneously across all words that contain the relevant phonological condition) or lexically diffused (in the sense that it first affects only a subset of condition-matching words and gradually spreads to other words). Lexical diffusion in diachronic sound change is known to be systematically constrained by a number of factors, including, most importantly, word frequency. Suggestions have often been made that a similar question can be posed in the context of language acquisition. But to my knowledge, few studies to this date have systematically examined developmental data to test whether phonological acquisition is best characterized as regular change or lexical diffusion. In this talk, I address this issue by analyzing children’s production of initial onset clusters (e.g., /pl/ in play). I will show that the accuracy and acquisition timing of cluster production in 1- to 2-year-old English-speaking children are constrained both by the type of cluster (e.g., /pl/ vs /tw/) and the input frequency of the individual lexical items (e.g., /pl/ in high frequency words vs low frequency words). Based on this and other pertinent findings, I will discuss how best to understand phonological development from the perspective of regular or lexically-diffused change.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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