VOT and F0 in the production and perception of Swahili obstruents: From the island to the coast to the inland region

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
The status of aspiration in Swahili has received conflicting historical and linguistic accounts. To date, it is not fully understood if this laryngeal setting in the language’s four voiceless obstruents (/p/, /t/, /k/, and /tʃ/) is phonemic or allophonic. This dissertation analyzes the phonetic laryngeal variations in four Swahili varieties, which are spoken in East Africa as a first language (Zanzibar in Tanzania and Mombasa in Kenya) or as a second language (Iringa in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya). Two experiments, one in production and one in perception, examined the acoustic cues of voice-onset time (VOT) and fundamental frequency (F0) to investigate how speakers employ these language-specific details. A total of 98 participants (male and female) took part in these experiments. This dissertation first explores statistically the productions of real words by all subjects. Linear mixed-effects models indicate that the phonetic cue that accounts for more variance in the data is VOT, with little significance found for F0. However, the VOT cue was not a significant dependent measure for three of the locations. Speakers from Zanzibar, both men and women, demonstrated that their dialect is most distinct from other dialects in that a) the language, as they speak it, has an aspiration contrast in minimal and non-minimal pairs; b) VOT measurements are different depending on word origin (long for English loanwords, intermediate for native Swahili words, and short for Arabic loanwords); and c) while females had significantly longer VOT durations in the other towns, the productions of both genders in Zanzibar were not statistically different. Next this dissertation analyzes statistically how the same subjects perceived and imitated modified VOTs and F0s (three levels each) of non-words. Imitation was found for VOT only among L1 speakers of the language, and a closer look revealed that the Zanzibar participants’ imitations were the strongest: that is, they mimicked all three levels with statistically significant accuracy. Mombasa participants, on the other hand, distinguished only between Level 1 and the other two. By contrast, L2 speakers of Swahili from Nairobi and Iringa showed no difference across the three levels in either VOT or F0. In short, only Zanzibar preserves produced VOT-based aspiration. The loss of aspiration along the coast and in the inland regions, which may be due to the linguistic influence of neighboring Bantu languages, is reflected by the abandonment of unstable orthographic systems that distinguished aspirated consonants in favour of the simplified orthography of later times.
Phonetics, Phonology, Laryngeal contrast, Stops, Plosives, Affricates, Loanwords, Voiceless, Gender differences, VOT, F0
Alsamaani, M. (2021). VOT and F0 in the production and perception of Swahili obstruents: from the island to the coast to the inland region (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca.