Phonology 101: Phonemes, aka phonology’s little superheroes

Welcome back to Phonology 101! Last time, we talked about the vocal tract and two major features of speech sounds, namely place of articulation and voicing (catch up here). Today, we’re going to stop using the word “sound” in favor of some more precise terms: phone, phoneme, and allophone. You may also find it useful to catch up on IPA (here); I’ll be introducing some important notation, and moving forward, I’ll be using IPA more and more.

Individual speech sounds are called phones. In talking about speech production, we keep distinguishing between phonetics (the concrete/physical) and phonology (the abstract/mental). Phones exist on the phonetic plane. Our mental representations of the sounds in our language are called phonemes. If your brain was a computer running a language program, phonemes would be all the sound files. As mentioned previously, the International Phonetic Alphabet is the standard for transcribing phones and phonemes. When using IPA, brackets put around the symbols indicate whether phonetic or phonological data is being represented. Phones go in square brackets (e.g. [a]), and phonemes go between slashes (/a/). On both levels, this notation can be used for individual sounds, complete words, or even phrases and longer utterances.

More technically, a phoneme is “a minimal contrastive sound unit of a language.”1 What that means is, phonemes cannot be broken down into smaller units, and switching a single phoneme for another can make the difference between one word and another. To determine the phonemes of a language, linguists look for something called minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words that differ in pronunciation by a single phone. An example of a minimal pair is mine /maɪn/ and kine /kaɪn/,2 which demonstrates that /m/ and /k/ are phonemes in English. As you can guess, minimal pairs have a tendency to rhyme, but the differing sounds don’t need to be at the beginning of words. They can also come at the end, as in mine /maɪn/ and might /maɪt/, or in the middle, as in can /kæn/ and kin /kɪn/.3 (These examples also nicely illustrate the point we keep emphasizing about how separate spelling and pronunciation actually are.)

Now, the thing about phonemes is, the sound we think we’re producing isn’t always technically the sound that comes out. Based on where it is in a word or the sounds surrounding it, a single phoneme might be pronounced in several ways. The physical manifestations of a phoneme are called allophones. Some phonemes might have only one allophone, while others might have several. Some allophones might be associated with more than one phoneme. I’ve had several teachers who explained it like this: Sometimes Superman is Superman, and sometimes Superman is Clark Kent. Sometimes, he’s even Kal-El. How he appears depends on the environment he’s in, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same guy. A linguistic example: In my dialect, I pronounce rot as [ɹɑt], but rotten is [ɹɑ.ʔən]. (Like generic phones, allophones go in brackets.) My “t” sound in rotten is something called a glottal stop. Even though it’s a different phone, my brain says the middle sound in rotten is the phoneme /t/ (an alveolar stop). This comes out when I enunciate it and it sounds more like [ɹɑ.tən]. [ʔ] is an allophone of /t/. (As we haven’t really talked about any specific sounds yet, I’ve tried to pick examples that would be kind of intuitive for most speakers. Even so, it was hard to avoid using some sounds and symbols that may be making you go, “Huh?” Here’s an interactive IPA chart with sound clips if you’d like to hear what I’m talking about.)

Some allophones are pretty obvious to spot, but others are more subtle. In ram [ɹæ̃m] the vowel takes on a nasal quality not present in rat [ɹæt] through the influence of the following nasal consonant /m/. This is how allophones tend to come about. In actual speech, no sound is produced in a vacuum. In the interest of ease of articulation, our mouths carry over features from previous sounds or, as in the case of ram, anticipate upcoming sounds. This process is highly predictable and regular. A phoneme will consistently produce the same allophone in a given environment.

Okay, so what? This is all well and good for linguists who just want to Know, but does it have any impact on your life? Well actually, yes. Every language variety has its own phoneme inventory. Phonemes in one language may only be allophones in another (or may be missing entirely). When we pick up a language as children, our boxed set of language features includes a list of sounds we consider phonemes. As we grow up, this internal phoneme inventory solidifies and becomes very hard to alter. This explains why people have an accent when they learn a second language—they’re unconsciously using their native phonemes.

Our phoneme inventories don’t just influence the way we pronounce words. They also filter how we process what we hear. In my dialect, I pronounce merry, marry, and Mary the same. In some dialects here in the United States, these words contain three different vowels and therefore have three distinct pronunciations. I’ve studied phonology long enough that I can carefully reproduce these pronunciations (when I remember which vowel goes with which word), but I still can’t hear the different when a native speaker of this dialect produces these words. For me, all these vowels get lumped into the same phoneme, so that’s how I hear them.

This isn’t a big deal for a situation like mine, where the phoneme difference is slight and it will be easy for me to figure out what’s being said. The differences between phoneme inventories can get more pronounced4, and interfere more with comprehension, when you’re speaking a second language. For example, in Arabic, [b] and [p] are not distinct phonemes, so it’s hard for a native Arabic speaker to distinguish between English barking and parking.

And this is why we’re wading through all this terminology and technical swampland: Language is a real world phenomenon with real world consequences. As in the Arabic example, phonology can have an effect on actual communication, as can morphology, syntax, semantics, and the other basic disciplines of linguistics. Once we’re done laying the groundwork, we can get to the fun stuff (like, what’s up with English spelling? And how do you pronounce GIF?).

There will be two more posts in the Phonology 101 series (for now). In two weeks, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of consonants, and then in March, we’ll go over vowels. Before we get to that, though, Sabina will be back next week to talk about something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask the big questions: Does our language influence how we think?


1Giegerich, Heinz J. 1992. English phonology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2An archaic plural of cow. I just really wanted to use it.
3Another somewhat archaic word for family and relatives. (But maybe you knew this one.)
4Lol, phonology puns.

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