We argue, based on a study of brain responses to speech sound differences in Japanese, that memory encoding of functional speech sounds—phonemes—are highly abstract. As an example, we provide evidence for a theory where the consonants/p t k b d g/ are not only made up of symbolic features but are underspecified with respect to voicing or laryngeal features, and that languages differ with respect to which feature value is underspecified. In a previous study we showed that voiced stops are underspecified in English [Hestvik, A., & Durvasula, K. (2016). Neurobiological evidence for voicing underspecification in English. Brain and Language], as shown by asymmetries in Mismatch Negativity responses to /t/ and /d/. In the current study, we test the prediction that the opposite asymmetry should be observed in Japanese, if voiceless stops are underspecified in that language. Our results confirm this prediction. This matches a linguistic architecture where phonemes are highly abstract and do not encode actual physical characteristics of the corresponding speech sounds, but rather different subsets of abstract distinctive features.
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