Deconstructing The Southeast Asian Sesquisyllable: A Gestural Account

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This dissertation explores a purportedly unusual word type known as the sesquisyllable, which has long been considered characteristic of mainland Southeast Asian languages. Sesquisyllables are traditionally defined as 'one and a half' syllables, or as one major syllable preceded by one minor syllable, which is phonologically reduced in terms of segmental inventory, prosodic prominence and syllable shape. The goal of the dissertation is to deconstruct the notion of the sesquisyllable via empirical acoustic investigation of the minor syllable, the results of which are interpreted in light of Articulatory Phonology. These results show that purported sesquisyllables can be reanalyzed as two different types of words: (i) monosyllables with word-initial consonant clusters that have excrescent transition states and (ii) maximally disyllabic iambs. I argue that only the latter of these two should be considered a sesquisyllable. The dissertation begins with a description of the cross-linguistic properties of sesquisyllables. Based on these characteristics, I propose both a structural/prosodic model of the sesquisyllable and an articulatory model of the minor syllable, which focuses on mid central (schwa-like) vocalic elements. Throughout the dissertation I maintain that an integrated phonological approach which relies on both of these models is necessary to adequately account for the sesquisyllable. My analysis is supported by phonetic evidence from three purportedly sesquisyllabic languages: Khmer, Bunong (Mnong) and Burmese. Minor syllable "vowels" in Khmer are shown to be excrescent transition states whose voicing is dependent on neighboring consonants, while minor syllable vowels in Bunong are determined to be phonological. I also present a pilot study of Burmese trisyllabic 'extended sesquisyllables' which broadens the scope of word types that might be considered sesquisyllables. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of how the disyllabic nature of sesquisyllables suggests that prosody and articulation might further be integrated in terms of oscillation.
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sesquisyllable; syllable; articulation
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Cohn, Abigail C
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Tilsen, Samuel
Zec, Draga
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Ph. D., Linguistics
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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dissertation or thesis
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