Difficult to hear but easy to see: Audio-visual perception of the /r/-/w/ contrast in Anglo-English


This paper investigates the influence of visual cues in the perception of the /r/-/w/ contrast in Anglo-English. Audio-visual perception of Anglo-English /r/ warrants attention because productions are increasingly non-lingual, labiodental (e.g., [ʋ]), possibly involving visual prominence of the lips for the post-alveolar approximant [ɹ]. Forty native speakers identified [ɹ] and [w] stimuli in four presentation modalities: auditory-only, visual-only, congruous audio-visual, and incongruous audio-visual. Auditory stimuli were presented in noise. The results indicate that native Anglo-English speakers can identify [ɹ] and [w] from visual information alone with almost perfect accuracy. Furthermore, visual cues dominate the perception of the /r/-/w/ contrast when auditory and visual cues are mismatched. However, auditory perception is ambiguous because participants tend to perceive both [ɹ] and [w] as /r/. Auditory ambiguity is related to Anglo-English listeners’ exposure to acoustic variation for /r/, especially to [ʋ], which is often confused with [w]. It is suggested that a specific labial configuration for Anglo-English /r/ encodes the contrast with /w/ visually, compensating for the ambiguous auditory contrast. An audio-visual enhancement hypothesis is proposed, and the findings are discussed with regard to sound change.

In Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
Hannah King
Hannah King
Associate professor of phonetics and phonology