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Separable processing of consonants and vowels

Abstract

There are two views about the nature of consonants and vowels. One view holds that they are categorically distinct objects that play a fundamental role in the construction of syllables in speech production1,2,3. The other view is that they are convenient labels for distinguishing between peak (vowel) and non-peak (consonant) parts of a continuous stream of sound that varies in sonority (roughly the degree of openness of the vocal apparatus during speech)4,5,6, or that they are summary labels for bundles of feature segments7,8. Taking the latter view, consonants and vowels do not have an independent status in language processing. Here we provide evidence for the possible categorical distinction between consonants and vowels in the brain. We report the performance of two Italian-speaking aphasics who show contrasting, selective difficulties in producing vowels and consonants. Their performance in producing individual consonants is independent of the sonority value and feature properties of the consonants. This pattern of results suggests that consonants and vowels are processed by distinct neural mechanisms, thereby providing evidence for their independent status in language production.

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Figure 1: Performance in repetition of a set of words seven or eight phonemes in length.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant from the NIH. We thank S. Blumstein, A. Costa, P. Jusczyk, J. Mehler, V. Savova, N. Schiller and K. Stevens for helpful suggestions, and K. Domoto-Reilly for her help in the scoring of the data.

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Correspondence to Alfonso Caramazza or Gabriele Miceli.

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Caramazza, A., Chialant, D., Capasso, R. et al. Separable processing of consonants and vowels. Nature 403, 428–430 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35000206

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