Brill’s Language & Linguistics Blog

Vowels in hyperspace?

I have seen Han Solo make the jump to hyperspace many times, but faster-than-light travel never struck me as something that could be relevant to phonetics. Imagine my surprise when I encountered the following articles in Linguistic Bibliography Online:

    • The hyperspace effect : phonetic targets are hyperarticulated
    • Het hyperspace-effect verdwijnt bij keuzebeperking (‘The hyperspace effect disappears after choice restriction’)
    • Vowel production and perception : hyperarticulation without a hyperspace effect

So what is phonetic hyperspace? While images spring to mind of vowels happily floating around in space, or faster-than-light traveling consonants leaving your mouth even before you collect your thoughts, I suspect that there is a slight chance that I might be wrong and decide to investigate this concept a bit further. Phonetic hyperspace turns out to be the “extreme vowel space” corresponding to hyperarticulated phonetic targets in a spectral diagram:

spectral diagram

(From: Johnson et al. 1993: 520)

In other words, hyperspace is filled with non-typical realizations of a vowel just floating around the space surrounding the prototypical vowel (maybe my first guess wasn’t that far off after all). Strangely, when listeners are asked to choose a phonetic variant to represent a particular vowel, i.e. a “best exemplar”, they often prefer the hyperarticulated vowels occupying extreme vowel spaces over the “normal” variants found in natural production, including their own! This perceptual vowel space expansion is known as the hyperspace effect.

This might not be as exciting as faster-than-light travel, but just remember that next time you’re watching a science fiction movie you’ll have a way to subtly steer the conversation to linguistics (your friends will thank you).

Eline van der Veken
Editor of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Brandenburg, Daan; Hoeks, John C. J.; Gilbers, Dirk G.: Het hyperspace-effect verdwijnt bij keuzebeperking. – Tabu : bulletin voor Nederlandse taalkunde 39/3-4, 2011, 149-159 | The hyperspace effect disappears after choice restriction

Frieda, Elaina M.; Walley, Amanda C.; Flege, James Emil; Sloane, Michael E.: Adults’ perception and production of the English vowel /i/. – Journal of speech, language, and hearing research 43/3, 2000, 129-143.

Johnson, Keith; Flemming, Edward S.; Wright, Richard A.: The hyperspace effect : phonetic targets are hyperarticulated. – Language 69/3, 1993, 505-528.

Whalen, Douglas H.; Magen, Harriet S.; Pouplier, Marianne; Kang, A. Min; Iskarous, Khalil: Vowel production and perception : hyperarticulation without a hyperspace effect. – Language and speech 47/2, 2004, 155-174.

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