Why is gemination contrast prevalently binary?
Abstract: Consonant gemination is predominantly arranged in two levels of length distinctions. Three-way length contrast is extremely rare, and languages with a 4-way system are probably non-existent. The rarity of more than 2-level distinctions may be related to phonetic implementation patterns which restrict speakers’ ability to produce such distinctions and/or listeners’ ability to perceive them. In this study we are concerned with the production restriction: Can speakers of a language produce up to 4 linguistically meaningful durational differences for the same consonants? This question is addressed by looking at the durational properties of Moroccan Arabic sequences opposing geminates (G) and singletons (S) across 6 contexts, theoretically yielding a 4-way distinction at the postlexical level: #S < #G, S#S < G#S, S#G < G#G. Instead of a 4-way hierarchy, our production data show a limit of 3-level distinctions: #S < #G=S#S=G#S < S#G=G#G. The factors ac- counting for the mismatch between phonological length and phonetic duration are discussed, and a working hypothesis is provided for why length contrast is prevalently binary.
Ridouane, Rachid & Turco, Giuseppina. 2019. “Why is gemination contrast prevalently binary? Insights from Moroccan Arabic”. Manuscript available in Radical: A Journal of Phonology.