From prosodic structure to acoustic saliency: an fMRI investigation of speech rate, clarity, and emphasis
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Acoustic variability in fluent speech can arise at many stages in speech production planning and execution. For example, at the phonological encoding stage, the grouping of phonemes into syllables determines which segments are coarticulated and, by consequence, segment-level acoustic variation. Likewise phonetic encoding, which determines the spatiotemporal extent of articulatory gestures, will affect the acoustic detail of segments. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity of fluent adult speakers in four speaking conditions: fast, normal, clear, and emphatic (or stressed) speech. These speech manner changes typically result in acoustic variations that do not change the lexical or semantic identity of productions but do affect the acoustic saliency of phonemes, syllables and/or words. Acoustic responses recorded inside the scanner were assessed quantitatively using eight acoustic measures and sentence duration was used as a covariate of non-interest in the neuroimaging analysis. Compared to normal speech, emphatic speech was characterized acoustically by a greater difference between stressed and unstressed vowels in intensity, duration, and fundamental frequency, and neurally by increased activity in right middle premotor cortex and supplementary motor area, and bilateral primary sensorimotor cortex. These findings are consistent with right-lateralized motor planning of prosodic variation in emphatic speech. Clear speech involved an increase in average vowel and sentence durations and average vowel spacing, along with increased activity in left middle premotor cortex and bilateral primary sensorimotor cortex. These findings are consistent with an increased reliance on feedforward control, resulting in hyper-articulation, under clear as compared to normal speech. Fast speech was characterized acoustically by reduced sentence duration and average vowel spacing, and neurally by increased activity in left anterior frontal operculum and posterior dorsal inferior frontal gyrus pars opercularis -- regions thought to be involved in sequencing and phrase-level structural processing. Taken together these findings identify the acoustic and neural correlates of adjusting speech manner and underscore the different processing stages that can contribute to acoustic variability in fluent sentence production.
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