Categorical vs. Episodic Memory for Pitch Accents in American English

  •  02 February 2017
  •   Amelia Kimball
  •   PhD student, Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Phonological accounts of speech perception postulate that listeners map variable instances of speech to categorical features and remember only those categories. Other research maintains that listeners perceive and remember subcategorical phonetic detail. Our study probes memory to investigate the reality of categorical encoding for prosody—when listeners hear a pitch accent, what do they remember? Two types of prosodic variation are tested: phonological variation (presence vs. absence of a pitch accent), and variation in phonetic cues to pitch accent (F0 peak, word duration). We report results from six experiments that test memory for phonological pitch accent vs. phonetic cues. Our results suggest that listeners encode both categorical distinctions and phonetic detail in memory, but categorical distinctions are more reliably retrieved than cues in later tests of episodic memory. They also show that listeners may vary in the degree to which they remember prosodic detail.