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Definition:

In speech, any one of the discrete units that occur in a sequence of sounds. Also known as the phonological segment or the phonetic segment.

Linguist John Goldsmith has described segments as "vertical slices" of the speech stream ("An Overview of Autosegmental Phonology" in Linguistic Analysis, 1976).

Speech segmentation is the process of identifying the boundaries between phonemes, syllables, or words in spoken language. See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "When we listen to someone talk, we hear speech but perceive segments, psychological units which correspond more or less to 'speech sounds.' It is necessary to make this distinction because the sound waves produced by the vocal tract are continuous (not divided neatly into individual sounds); however, our interpretation of these sound waves is discrete (we perceive distinct sounds, one following the other). For example, if someone utters the word war within our hearing, what we actually hear is a sound that gradually changes shape through time. What we perceive, however, is a series of three discrete segments: w-a-r. This distinction between hearing and perceiving is fundamental to an appreciation of phonology, although it is not an easy concept to grasp. . . .

    "Speech refers to what we are actually doing when we talk and listen; phonology refers to the segments and rules in terms of which we organize our interpretation of speech. Put another way, speech refers to physical or physiological phenomena, and phonology refers to mental or psychological phenomena."
    (Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Allyn and Bacon, 1994)


  • Phonetic Segmentation
    "An utterance is said to consist of phonetic segments, each consisting of a constellation of articulatory figures. Segments are easy to demonstrate with well-chosen examples, such as the eight English words cats, tacks, stack, cast, task, asked, sacked, and scat, each of which contains the same four, evidently discrete, components--in very crude phonetics, [s], [k], [t], and [æ]. . . . From the phonetic point of view, it is clear that there are four separate phonetic events (the segments) in a complex articulation like [stæk], with easy-to-hear boundaries between them.

    "Even with examples of this kind, on close examination the question of discrete phonetic segmentation turns out to be complex; and segmentation is downright elusive in the case of words like warrior or yellow. It is convenient, however, and usually not too much of an idealization, to regard all utterances as segmentable into discrete elements articulated sequentially, called speech sounds or (more formally) phones."
    (Andrew L. Sihler, Language History: An Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)


  • Segmental Phonology and Suprasegmental Phonology
    "In phonology, a major division is often made into segmental and suprasegmental (or 'non-segmental') categories. Segmental phonology analyses the speech into distinctive units, or phonemes (= 'segmental phonemes'), which have a fairly direct correspondence with phonetic segments (alternative approaches involve analysis in terms of distinctive features and prosodies). Suprasegmental or non-segmental phonology analyses those features of speech which extend over more than one segment, such as intonation or (in some theories) vowel harmony."
    (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 4th ed. Blackwell, 1997)


  • Language Acquisition and Segmentation
    "For infants coming into language for the first time, their impression of the language they are learning may be similar to ours when we hear a foreign language. While speech to infants differs from that used to speak to adults, infant-directed speech is also continuous with no clearly marked word boundaries (van de Weijer, 1998). In order to learn the meanings of words, infants must find (or segment) them in fluent speech. But how do they do this before they know many words? . . .

    "[I]nvestigations have shown that English-learning 7.5-month-olds are not able to segment all words from fluent speech. They can segment ones that follow the predominant stress pattern of English (e.g., doctor, candle) but not ones that follow the less common stress pattern (guitar, surprise). These findings suggest that English-learning infants' sensitivity to the rhythm of their language influences their ability to segment words from fluent speech. Similar investigations have shown that English-learning infants' sensitivity to the orderings of phonemes in the ambient language also plays a role in segmentation (see Houston, 2005, for a review)."
    (George J. Hollich and Derek M. Houston, "Language Development From Speech Perception to First Words." Introduction to Infant Development, 2nd ed., edited by Alan Slater and Michael Lewis. Oxford University Press, 2007)
Pronunciation: SEG-ment
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