In contrastive distribution, where the sounds belong to

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In English, there are 44 sounds which can be divided into two categories, such as consonants and vowels, these speech sounds are called phonemes. There have been some criticisms about allophones, especially in terms of educational settings, one person who has highlighed these issues is (Harris 2002,. Pg 21.) stating that allophones are arbitrary in correlating with the phonemes and this “raises the question of the degree of allophonic variation which should be permitted when a child is credited with having mastered a phonemic contrast.” This essay will therefore be concerned with the difference between the components of speech sounds, the two main being phonemes and allophones as well as why allophones occur with given examples.


Phonemes are abstract mental representations and perceptions sensed in our minds of a sound. Phonemes distinguish the sounds between two words such as the ‘p’ in pat and the ‘b’ in bat, differentiating both the words and the meanings. Phones, however, are the concrete and actual sounds produced. Whilst every phoneme has one allophone, there may be more than one phone corresponding to a phoneme, this is evident in the different variant pronunciations of the phoneme /p/ in words such as phak ‘park’ whereby the p is aspirated and in spak ‘spark’ where the p is unaspirated. As highlighted by (Bybee 2001. Pg 36) “the variants of the phoneme are predictable from features of the surrounding context.” There are two types of distributions in which the sounds can occur, complementary and contrastive, which also vary by language. In complementary distribution one sound occurs in one set of contexts and the other in the other set of contexts, the sounds also belong to the same phoneme. An example of this is the pronunciation of the English word ‘dressing’ which can be pronounced as d??s?? or d??s?n. Whilst the endings are pronounced differently, the meaning of the word does not change, this, therefore, allows for the identification of the allophones n and ? for the phoneme /ng/. In contrastive distribution, where the sounds belong to different phonemes, (Genetti., Pg 56) states, “the two sounds are able to occur in the same environment, in words with different meanings” for example, the English words ‘fun’ f?n  and ‘run’ ??n are in contrastive distribution as the difference in the first speech sound produced contributes to the different meanings of the words and allows for the identification of the phonemes /f/ and /r/. Phonemes are therefore unable to switch sounds as the meaning will not be maintained, but rather creates minimal pairs with the minimally contrasting words. This is also highlighted through the examples ‘cat’ kæt and ‘cash’ kæ? which are minimal pairs that differ in their final sound, and have different meanings, this represents the contrastive distribution of the words, identifying /t/ and /?/ as two different phonemes and also in the examples ‘rough’ r?f and ‘tough’ t?f that differ in the first sound produced, reflecting the different meanings of the words therefore identifying /r/ and /t/ as different phonemes.


(Nordquist 2017) defines an allophone as “an audibly distinct variant of a phoneme.” Allophones are different ways of pronouncing the same phoneme and occur in specific environments. The environments may be purely phonetic, or a combination of phonetic and morphological conditioning. An example of this is the phoneme /p/ that can be pronounced with aspiration or unaspiration, as evident through the English words ‘pit’ and ‘spit’. The phoneme /p/ has two allophones ph and p, the aspirated ph and unaspirated p occur under certain conditions representing the predictable variant pronuncations, for example the aspirated p would occur when it is the first sound in the first syllable of a word, such as p??t ‘pit’ or when the first sound in a syllable is not the first, but is stressed, for example in ‘appear’ ??p??.  The unaspirated p occurs when there is a vowel in front which takes the stress away from the p for example in the English word sp?t ‘spit’ whereby the /s/ takes the emphasis. This also occurs in the English examples ‘top’ t??p and ‘stop’ st?p. The phoneme /t/ has two allophones th and t which also occur in specific environments, similar to those of the phoneme /p/ whereby th is aspirated when it is the first syllable of a word such as in ‘top’ and t is unaspirated when it follows an /s/ such as in ‘stop.’ Allophones in complementary distribution are able to be identified if the two sounds are phonetically similar and they occur in mutually exclusive enviroments. Allophones that occur in complementary distribution are predictable and rule governed. Allophones are also able to be switched and the meaning of the word will still be maintained, an example of this being the english word ‘belief’ which can be pronounced either b??lif or b??lif

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As stated by (Kharbe 2009,. pg 78.) “phones that occur and do not contrast in the same context are said to be in free variation in that context.” An example of free variation is the variant pronuncations of the English word ‘waiter’ which is able to be pronounced either we?t? or we???. The different pronunciations do not impact the meaning of the words, but occur in free variation as the sounds are non contrastive and are not predictable by linguistic environment. Free variation may be a stylistic option and occur due to formality or regional variation and arguably, is most common in casual speech. (McGregor 2009., pg 55.) states “Absolutely free variation is rare. Usually there are reasons for it, perhaps the speaker’s dialect, perhaps the emphasis the speaker wants to put on the word.” Another example of free variation is ‘bottle’ which can be pronounced as ?b?tl or ?b??l, whilst the medial sound in this example is changed, the meaning of the word is the same.


The phoneme /l/ has three different allophones of the phoneme /l/ that all occur in contrastive distribution. For example, the english word ‘laugh’ l??f the /l/ is described a clear, whereas the /l/ is described as dark when it occurs at the end of a syllable for example in the word ‘pull’ p?l and is described as devoiced when it is after the voiceless stops /p/ /t/ and /k/ for example in the word ‘class’ kl???s


In conclusion, phonemes and allophones are units of speech sounds that occur due to specific environments and also highlight the differences between minimal pairs and actual phonemes in the english language. Phonemes occur either in complementary or contrastive distribution whilst free variation is able to occur in both phonemes and allophones.



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