Natural Boundaries in Gap Detection are Related to Categorical Perception of Stop Consonants

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Objectives: The hypothesis that a natural auditory psychophysical discontinuity contributes to a perceptual category boundary between voiced and voiceless English stop consonants was examined.

Design: The relationships between voice onset time (VOT) phonetic boundary and gap-detection thresholds for conditions in which the sounds delimiting the gap were acoustically identical or different were examined in 18 native young adult English speakers. It was specifically hypothesized that between-channel gap-detection thresholds, in contrast to within-channel gap thresholds, would be better predictors of categorical VOT values for listeners. The stimuli used in the between-channel gap-detection task were designed such that dissimilar leading and trailing markers of the gap approximated a stop burst and a following vowel, both in terms of temporal and spectral relationships, while being devoid of phonetic identity. The stimuli used to examine the VOT measure were synthesized bilabial stop syllables in a continuum ranging from /ba/ to /pa/.

Results: Statistically significant larger gap thresholds were found for the between-channel conditions than for the within-channel condition (p < 0.05). The center frequency of the trailing marker affected the between-channel gap thresholds with the thresholds improving as the center frequency increased (p < 0.05). Statistically significant positive correlations and predictive linear relations were found between VOT phonetic boundaries and between-channel gap thresholds (p < 0.05) but not within-channel gap thresholds (p > 0.05).

Conclusions: A relationship between the phonetic boundary of voiced–voiceless speech sounds and the auditory temporal resolution task of detecting gaps placed within dissimilar markers, regardless of the center frequency of the trailing marker noise burst, was demonstrated. Detection of gaps between different nonspeech acoustic markers and categorical perception of VOT seems to share the same underlying perceptual timing mechanisms in native English speakers.