Phonemes and Allophones

Phonemes and Allophones

In every language, certain sounds are considered by native speakers to be the "same" sound, even though they may be phonetically distinct. Compare the British and American pronunciations of "dance" [da:ns] versus [d@ns]. Although they are pronounced differently, the meaning doesn't change. Thus, in these examples, [a:] and [@] are allophones - variations - of the pronunciation of the same phoneme and do not change the meaning of the word "dance."


What are phonemes? What are allophones?

One of the goals of this lesson is to understand more clearly the distinction between "same" and "different" sounds. To do this, we will discuss the terms allophone and phoneme. Since these concepts are the crux of phonological analysis, it is important that they be clearly understood. Perhaps the best way to explain these terms is through examples. On a separate piece of paper, transcribe the following five words:
It is likely that you transcribed all of these words with a [t], something like the following:
[tap]       [stap] [litl]  [kitn]   [h^nte:]
This is good, since it reflects something that is psychologically real to you. But, in fact, the physical reality is that the "t" you transcribed in those five examples is pronounced slightly differently from one example to the next. To illustrate this, pronounce the five words again. Concentrate on what the "t" sounds like in each example, but be sure to say them as you normally would if you were talking to a friend.
What differences did you notice? Compare, for example, the "t" of top to that of stop. You should be able to detect a short burst or puff of air after the "t" in top that is absent in stop. That puff of air is called aspiration, which we will transcribe with a superscripted [h]. So while a native speaker would consider the "t" sound in top and stop to be the same sound, the 't' is actually pronounced differently in each word. This difference can be captured in the transcription, as in [thap] and [stap], respectively.
Now say the word little and kitten. We might say that the "t" in little for most speakers of American English (but not of British English), the "t" in words like little is pronounced as a flap r [D] much like the in Spanish words like [pero] "but" and [cara] "face". English kitten, on the other hand, is pronounced with the same sound we hear in the expression uh-oh, a glottal stop [?]. So, we could transcribe little as [liDl] and kitten as [ki?n].
For some speakers of American English, in casual speech words like hunter are pronounced with no "t" at all, but rather as [h^ne:].
To a native speaker, all of the words above have a "t" in them, at least at some psychological level. Proof of that lies in the fact that one may transcribe them all with a "t", at least until trained in transcription. Someone who lacks linguistic training would probably not hesitate to state that all the above words have a "t" and would need to be convinced that subtle differences, like aspiration, exist among them. 
Unlike a speaker of English, a native speaker of Hindi could not ignore the difference between aspirated and unaspirated sounds when speaking or hearing Hindi. To a speaker of Hindi, the aspirated sound [ph] is as different from unaspirated [p], as [p] is from [b] to our ears. Hindi contains many words that are pronounced in nearly the same way, except that one word will have an aspirated stop where the other has an unaspirated stop:
Hindi:[kaphi]  "meaningful"
[kapi]  "copy"
[phal] "knife edge"
[pal] "take care of"
Aspiration is "contrastive" in Hindi. In other words, saying [pal] for "knife edge" instead of [phal] is like saying "shave" instead of "save".
So, while for English speakers, [ph] and [p], or [th] and [t] are members of the same class, Hindi speakers cannot overlook these differences and distinguish meaning based on these differences.
A class of speech sounds that are identified by a native speaker as the same sound is called a phoneme. The different phonetic realizations of a phoneme are called allophones.
  • [ph] and [p] are allophones of the same phoneme in English.
  • Whereas in Hindi, [ph] and [p] are different phonemes.

How do we find out which sounds are phonemes (separate sounds) and which are allophones (variations of the same sound)?

A simple way to find out whether two sounds are phonemes or allophones is to make minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are words that are identical except for one sound. For example:
pit [pit]
Now replace [p] with [b]:
bit [bit]
A whole new word results: pit and bit are two different words. Therefore, in English [p] and [b] are contrastive and are separate phonemes because a whole new word results. Using the technique of minimal pairs, we can find out which sound substitutions cause differences in meaning.
Do these words have different meanings, or are they variations of a word:
sue zoopay baybelief believetoy boy
These are minimal pairs - two words that are identical in every way except for one sound. And that one sound creates a whole new word. Here are four golden rules for minimal pairs:
  1. they must have the same number of sounds
  2. they must be identical in every sound except for one
  3. the sound that is different must be in the same position in each word
  4. the words must have different meanings
This cartoon has four words that are identical except for one sound:

crickcreekcrookcroak. These words are identical except for one sound. Changing the sound results in completely new words. That means that [i], [i:], [u], and [o:] are phonemes, separate sounds because they create new words.
Being able to distinguish between phonemes and allophones can help us analyze and understand the patterns in language.


Mod 3 Activity 9:  Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are useful because they help us to figure out whether a sound is a phoneme (separate sound) or an allophone (variation of the same sound.) 
Step 1: Practice. These practice exercises will help you complete Mod 3 Activity 9 successfully, so do not skip this step. Remember that the internet uses a different phonetic alphabet than we use in class, so don't simply copy answers you might find online.
  • Practice 1 Minimal Pairs in Word-Initial Position. Come up with at least 3 additional minimal pairs which are identical except for the first sound.
[p] and [b]     Example: pit - bit
[l] and [r]     Example: late - rate
Check your answers for practice 1
  • Practice 2 Minimal Pairs in Word-Final Position. Add at least 3 additional minimal pairs which are identical except for the last sound.
[d] and [t]     Example: bead - bit
[s] and [t]     Example: miss - mitt
Check your answers for practice 2
  • Practice 3 Vowel Sounds in Word-Mid Position. Write at least 3 additional words for each of the following. Each word must start and end with the sounds below but must have a different vowel sound in the mid-word position. These are like the crick/creek/crook/croak in the cartoon, above.
[t __ l]     Example: toll
[k ___ t]     Example: cot
[b___ d]     Example: bead
Check your answers for practice 3

Step 2: Complete the graded Mod 3 Activity 9.
To complete this graded activity, follow these instructions:
  1. Download and complete Mod 3 Activity 9 (.doc) on minimal pairs.
  2. Save as yourlastname_mod3activity9. Be sure to save as Word .doc or .docx or rich text .rtf. If you're using a Mac, save as rich text .rtf. Do not save as .wps, .wpd, .pdf, or .html.
  3. Submit this activity as an attachment in the assignment box by the calendar deadline.

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