The Phonological Representation of Taiwan Mandarin Vowels: A Psycholinguistic Study

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One of the fundamental goals of every phonological theory is to account for the nature of the basic units of speech sounds, and the relationships between these units and their contextual variants. This relationship is equally crucial to phonological theory whether it is called ‘phonemes and allophones’, ‘underlying and surface forms’, or ‘input and output’. However, purely structural analyses of phonological systems can often produce several hypotheses regarding the phonemic inventory and its surface reflexes in any particular language, all of which are supportable by the contrast and alternation patterns of the language. In this paper we look at four such hypotheses regarding the underlying vowel system of Mandarin, all based on Beijing Mandarin: the six-vowel system of C. Cheng (1973), the five-vowel systems of R. Cheng (1966) and of Lin (1989), and the four-vowel system of Wu (1994). We then present distributional, phonetic, and psycholinguistic evidence (the latter based on a corpus of 238 syntagmatic speech errors or ‘slips of the tongue’ involving vowels) that the vowel system of the dialect of Mandarin currently spoken in Taiwan cannot be accounted for by any of these hypotheses. We then propose a new 5-vowel system for Taiwan Mandarin, based on the distributional, phonetic, and especially the psycholinguistic facts. We conclude that phonological theories which are compatible with psycholinguistic evidence such as the data presented here are those most likely to be modeling the actual cognitive representations and processes of real speakers.

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