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Features of low functional load in mono- and bilinguals’ lexical access: evidence from Swedish tonal accent

  • Nadja Althaus EMAIL logo , Allison Wetterlin and Aditi Lahiri
From the journal Phonetica


Swedish makes use of tonal accents (Accents 1 and 2) to contrast words, but the functional load is very low, with some regional dialects not even exhibiting the contrast. In particular given the low number of minimal pairs, the question is whether tonal word accent is used in lexical access. Here we present two cross-modal fragment semantic priming studies in order to address this question. Both experiments use first syllable fragments in order to prime semantically related targets. Experiment 1 utilises words whose first syllable occurs with both accent patterns, creating a situation in which there is lexical competition between words that differ solely in terms of accent. Experiment 2 removes this competition by using words that have no such accent competitors. Our results show that native speakers of Swedish use tonal word accent in lexical access: Accent mispronunciations failed to prime semantically related targets, regardless of whether primes had accent competitors or not. Results for a group of early bilingual speakers (who grew up with one Swedish-speaking parent and one other non-tonal language) showed no differences in processing compared to the monolinguals. This indicates that the extraction of accent features during acquisition and their use in lexical access is robust, even in a scenario where multiple input languages lead to tonal word accent being a useful feature for only some of the lexical items that are being acquired. There is no doubt that the accent system is well entrenched into the bilinguals’ phonological system.

Corresponding author: Nadja Althaus, School of Psychology, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7JT, UK; and Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, E-mail:

Funding source: ERC

Award Identifier / Grant number: FP7-IST-269670


We wish to thank Tomas Riad and the Institute for Swedish and Multilingualism at the University of Stockholm for kindly hosting us for data collection, Gunnar Norrman for technical support in Stockholm, Colin Brooks for technical support in Oxford, Clara Palm for research assistance, Sara Myrberg for help recording stimuli, Irina Lepădatu, Janette Chow and Jelena Sučević for help with stimulus preprocessing.

  1. Author contributions: NA, AW and AL designed the research. NA and AW conducted the research. NA analysed the reaction time data. AW carried out detailed phonetic analyses of the stimulus material. NA, AW and AL wrote the paper.

  2. Funding sources: This research was funded by ERC Project FP7-IST-269670 to Aditi Lahiri.

  3. Conflict of interest statement: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

  4. Statement of ethics: The work in these experiments was carried out in accordance with The Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association (Declaration of Helsinki). The work was approved by the University of Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division Ethics Committee under the project “MS-IDREC-C1-2015-078: The representation of word sounds in the mental lexicon”. All participants provided written informed consent prior to taking part in the study.


Appendix A. Formant analysis for stimuli used in Experiment 1

Pairs of items for which the first syllable fragments serve as accent competitors sometimes contained different medial consonants. In order to make sure that this did not lead to co-articulation information at the end of the fragment, which could have allowed participants to discriminate between the competing items, we conducted a formant analysis on the fragments. Here we provide measurements for formants F1, F2 and F3, taken at the final three glottal pulses of the fragment using Praat. The values from the last three formant measurements were averaged to yield one mean F1 value, one mean F2 value and one mean F3.

For each pair of Accent 1 and matched Accent 2 items (e.g. fabel/fader), we calculated the difference between the respective F1 means, F2 means and F3 means. We then inspected the distribution of these paired distances across pairs of items where the continuation after the fragment cut consisted of:

  1. the same segment, e.g. [ha]gel – [ha]ge, with upcoming consonant /g/

  2. of different segments, e.g. [fa]bel – [fa]der, with upcoming consonants /b/ vs. /d/

Two-sample t-tests (Welch) were also conducted to compare the distributions, revealing no significant differences (F1: t(32.5) = −0.553, p = 0.584; F2: t(53.3) = 1.242, p = 0.220; F3: t(33.28) = −1.233, p = 0.226). We therefore concluded that co-articulation information could not have caused participants to respond on information other than tonal accent in Experiment 1.

Figure 7: Density plots for distribution of differences between measurements for matched Accent 1/Accent 2 pairs in Experiment 1.(a) F1, (b) F2, (c) F3. Distributions for pairs with the same medial segment are plotted in red, distributions for pairs with different medial segments are plotted in black.
Figure 7:

Density plots for distribution of differences between measurements for matched Accent 1/Accent 2 pairs in Experiment 1.

(a) F1, (b) F2, (c) F3. Distributions for pairs with the same medial segment are plotted in red, distributions for pairs with different medial segments are plotted in black.

Figure 7 shows density plots for the distribution of the differences for F1, F2, and F3 respectively.


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Published Online: 2021-05-12
Published in Print: 2021-06-25

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