The Theory of a Phoneme


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

The suspension of phoneme contrast in isolated words is called free variations or a temporary neutralization. Although phonetic contrast is suspended some social linguists have argued that free variations are often sociologically significant.



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The Theory of a Phoneme

  1.  Phonemes and Allophones.
  2.  Contrastive and Complementary Distribution. Free variations of a Single Phoneme.
  3.  Distinctive and Non-distinctive  Features.
  4.  The Trends of the Theory of phonemes.
  5.  The Phoneme Theory in Other Countries.
  6.  Distribution of Phonemes. The system of English Phonemes.

1. Phonemes and Allophones.

The speech sounds of language make up morphemes and words and at the same time the speech sounds are realizations of the segmental phonemes.

Phoneme is the smallest unit of sound of speech capable of distinguishing one word from another. Separate segments have no meaning of their own, they mean something only in combinations, which are called words.

Ex. If  “t” in “tip” is replaced by “d” , this gives us the word “dip” which differs in meaning from “tip”.

Ex. Pan-ban, ban-bin.

For example, in English, when the phoneme /p/ occurs at the beginning of words, like “put” /put/ and “pair” it is said with a little puff of air (called aspiration). But when /p/ occurs in words like “span” and “spare” it is said without the puff of air, it is unaspirated. Both the unaspirated /p/ in “put” in “span” and the aspirated /p/ in “put” have the same phonemic function. They are both heard and identified as /p/ and not as /b/. They are both allophones.

Therefore, “p” and “b” are different phonemes in English. If we replace aspirated “t” in the word “tip” by non-aspirated, we won’t get different words. Therefore, “t” and “t”  are variants of one and the same phoneme “t”, that is allophones.

Ex. Twice-eighth – try – written – little – stay.

It is clear that the sense of “sound” in these two cases is different. To avoid this ambiguity, the linguists use 2 separate terms:

Phoneme – is used to mean “sound” in its contrastive sense.

Allophone –is used for sounds which are variants of a phoneme, they usually occur in different positions in the word and cannot contrast.

Allophones are the predictable realizations of phonemes.

2. Contrastive and Complementary Distribution. Free variations of a Single Phoneme.

The range of positions in which a particular  unit of a language ( for example a phoneme) can occur is called its distribution. For example, in English the phoneme /ŋ/ usually written /ng/ cannot occur at the beginning of a word but it can occur in final position, as in “sing”. In other languages /ŋ/ may occur word initially, as in Cantonese ‘ngoh” means “I”.

Two or more sounds in a language contrast if they appear in the same position, in the same frame. These sounds are said to be in contrasted distribution.

Ex.  Pit – pot; tan – ban; seat – seed.

Sounds in a language that never occur in the same environment can never contrast. They cannot appear in contrasted distribution. We say that sounds, that occur only I different environments are in complementary distribution.

Sounds that are in contrasted distribution are phonemes, and those in complementary distribution are allophones.

Ex. If we fully palatalize | l | in the word “let”, it may sound peculiar, but the word is still recognized as “let”, but not “pet” or “bet”.

Besides contrastive and complementary distribution of sounds there is a third possibility that the sounds both occur in a language, but the speakers are inconsistent in the way they use them.

Ex. The man who we saw.       The man whom we saw.

In  Russian: шкафшкап, калошигалоши.

In English: either



We know that (      )   and   (      ) are different phonemes in English, but their substitution doesn’t result in a new word, as it happens with the substitution of  |t| and | d| in the words ‘tip” and “dip”. Such variations are often considered as social variations or stylistic variations.

The suspension of phoneme contrast in isolated words is called free variations or a temporary neutralization. Although phonetic contrast is suspended some social linguists have argued that free variations are often sociologically significant. The choice between variants is often conditioned by the social situation. One variety may be associated with a particular social group or geographical area or may be of higher or lower prestige.

Ex. People, living in a wealthy suburb may more often say

while people in the same town but in a poor neighbourhood might more often say.

3. Distinctive and Non-distinctive  Features.

Some articulatory features are distinctive,  relevant, others – are not.

To extract relevant features of the sound we have to oppose it to some other phoneme in the same phonetic context.

This is the method of minimal pairs.

E.x. Buy-pie, bore-pour, big-pig, bear-pear.

If the opposed sounds differ in one articulatory feature and this difference between them brings about changes in the meaning, the contrasting features are  distinctive or relevant.

The articulatory features which do not serve to distinguish meaning are called non-distinctive or irrelevant.

The set of properties that are distinctive is not constant throughout the world’s languages. It may differ from language to language.

E.x. Aspiration is non-distinctive in English, Japan.

It is distinctive in languages such as Korean and Thai.

The distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants is distinctive in English.

E.x. pin-bin, bat-bad, bag-back.

In Russian the voiced-voiceless feature is neutralized at the end of the word.

E.x. prut= twig – прут

      prud=pond - пруд 

Palatalization  is a distinctive feature in Russian.

E.x. “mat” (checkmate) / “mat ’ ” (mother).

       ел-ель,  мел-мель, брат-брать

4. The Trends of the Theory of Phonemes.

The Phoneme Theory came into being in Russia. The first linguist to point out the distinction between the “phone”, Russian “zvuk” and the phoneme was professor Ivan Baudoin de Courtenay (1845-1929), an eminent Russian linguist scholar of Polish origin. He established himself in Russia and was the founder of the Kazan Linguistic School. The traditions of this school were later developed in St Petersburg University.

He originated the so-called “mentalist” view of the phoneme. He described the phoneme as a psychic image of a sound. He worked out the fundamental principle of the phoneme during the 1870s, thus forestalling Western European linguistics by nearly 40 years. He stated more than once that the word “phoneme’ was invented by his student Kruszewsky. However, he didn’t write on this theme.

He proceeded from the assumption that the role of sounds in the mechanism of language for communication between people, does not coincide with their physical nature. In his theory he subordinated the phonetic side of speech to the social function of language as a means of communication.

The well-known English phonetician D. Jones points out in his book “The Phoneme: its nature, development and origin” that the term phoneme as used by B. de Courtenay was a phonetic one. His phonetic concept can be viewed psychologically and physically. B. de Courtenay recognized 2 kinds of phonetics: psychophonetics which related to the pictured sounds; the other was called physiophonetics and related to concrete sounds actually uttered. B. de Courtenay’s theory of the phonological distribution of phonemes is very important, esp. in its relationship to the construction of phonetic transcriptions, the devising of alphabets for languages and in general to the practical teaching of spoken foreign languages.

His views on the phoneme lacked consistency, for while he was developing the Phoneme Theory, he changed his standpoint more than once. He spent his last years of life in Poland.

His views were developed by his immediate follower L.V. Scherba (1880-1944) in his book “Russian vowels in their qualitative and quantitative aspects”. He stated that in actual speech there exists a certain number of sound types which are capable of distinguishing the meaning and the form of words. These sound types are phonemes. And the actually pronounced speech sounds are variants or allophones. So, he gave the notion of allophones. According to L.V. Scherba the phoneme may be viewed as a functional, material and abstract element. The definition of the phoneme given by L. Scherba as the smallest general phonetic representation of the given language which is able to associate with the meaning representation and to differentiate words was of a semantic character. In his definition l. Scherba emphasized the close connection between phoneme and meaning.

These 3 aspects of the phoneme are concentrated in the definition of the phoneme given by V.A. Vassilyev, who looked upon the phoneme ‘as a dialectical unity of these aspects because they determine one another and are independent”. V. Vassilyev gave the following definition: “The segmental phoneme is the smallest language unit but exists in the speech of all the members of a given language community”.

According to this definition, the Phoneme is material, objective and real, abstractional and generalized and  functional because it really exists in the form of speech sounds. It’s a truly materialistic point of view.

Professor V. Vassilyev developed L. Scherba’s theory and presented a detailed definition of the phoneme in his book “English Phonetics. A Theoretical Course”.

Firstly, functional aspect should be considered, that is – the opposition of phonemes in the same phonetic environment differentiates the meaning of morphemes, words or phrases.

Ex. Said – says, bath – path.

He was heard badly. He was hurt badly.

It was a scene.              It was  a sin.

Secondly, the Phoneme is material and objective it is realized in speech of all English – speaking people in the form of speech sounds. Thirdly, the Phoneme is abstract and generalized. It’s an abstract linguistic unit because native speakers abstract themselves from the difference between the allophones of the same phoneme.

Vassilyev states that Phoneme is material, real and objective because it really exists in the material form of speech sounds, allophones. It s an objective reality, existing independently from our will or intention. It is an abstraction because we make it abstract from concrete realizations for classificatory purposes, it functions to make one word or its grammatical form distinct from the other, it constitutes words and helps to recognize them.

M.A. Sokolova gave the following definition: “The Phoneme is a minimal abstract linguistic unit realized in speech in the form of speech sounds opposable to other phonemes of the same language to distinguish the meaning of morphemes and words”.

4. The Phoneme Theory in Other Countries.

The abstractional conception of the phoneme was originated by F. de Saussure, the famous Swiss scholar. Ferdinand de Saussure considered phonemes not as some material matter but some disembodied units of the language formed by the differences separating its acoustic image from the rest of the units. In his opinion language contains nothing but differences between different sounds. In his words “language is a system of signs expressing ideas”. His interpretation of the Phonemic Theory was shared by American structuralists Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir. Phonemes are declared by them as “abstractional fictions”. They are only structural elements of the language. The “abstract” view regards the phoneme independent of the phonetic properties. It was advocated by their pupils in the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle.

The American linguist Ch. Hockett states that one of the main functions of speech sounds is to keep utterances apart. He says that the phonological system of any language is not so much a system of sounds, but it is a network of differences in them. His definition of a phoneme is as follows: “the phonemes are the elements which stand in contrast with each other in the phonological system of a language”.

The main principles which lie at the basis of phonology were formulated by the Prague linguistic School. During the late 1920s the study of the phoneme was started by the group of Eastern European scholars, who on the initiative of the Czech linguist V. Mathesius formed themselves in 1926 into the Circle Linguistique de Prague. Among them were the Russian scientists Nikolay Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson. They were not the pupils of B. de Courtenay, but they were familiar with his work and influenced by it.L. Scherba disapproved of the concepts of the Prague School contributors and his efforts were continued by the linguists who regarded a p[phoneme as the smallest unit of speech. Following the theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, N. Trubetzkoy distinguishes the sounds of language and phonemes. He viewed the phoneme as the minimal sound unit by which meanings may be differentiated. He developed F. de Saussure’s principle of the separation of speech from language by proclaiming a new science – phonology. According to Trubetzkoy, phonology is a linguistic science and should concern itself with the distinctive features of a language. Phonetics is a biological science and should concern itself with the sounds of a language as they are pronounced and are heard.

The London School of Phonology was headed by professor Daniel Jones and is considered to represent the physical conception of the phoneme: “A Phoneme may be described roughly as a family of sounds consisting of an important sound of the language with other related sounds”. The members of the family show phonetic similarity. No member of the family can occur in the same phonetic context as any other member.

D. Jones’ conceptions show the influence of N.S. Trubetzkoy. According to D. Jones, the problem of phonemes is connected with philosophy. He considers that it’s impossible to give an adequate definition of the phoneme, since the term “language” is vague.

6. Distribution of Phonemes. The system of English Phonemes.

Hawaiian – poor in phonemes. The only consonants are:

/ h,  k,  l,  m,  n,  p, w /.

None of them may be used without a following vowel.

“Merry Christmas” = “Mele Kalikimaka”.

Arabic has the greatest variety of guttural sounds.

The languages of the Caucasus are considered to have the richest assortment of consonant sounds.

The Hottentot-Bushman languages of southwest Africa use grunts and clicks as normal parts of their speech sounds.

Some European languages get along without vowels. The Yugoslav name for Trieste is Trst. In Czech “a hill full of fog” is “vrch pln mlh”. The r and l in these words serve as vowels.

The name of the former capital of Kirgistan Frunze usually sounds/purunze/. There is no the distribution of /fr/  at the beginning of the words in the Kirgiz language.

In Tatar and English there is no phoneme /ц/ = /ts/ as in Russian words tsar, koltso, tsentr and the learners will face additional difficulties acquiring this phoneme.

R. Jacobson and his associates report that they have found no language where the syllable cannot begin with a consonant or end with a vowel, but there are many where the syllable cannot begin with a vowel or end with a consonant. 

Although the phonemes of English and Russian differ considerably in their qualities, their number is about the same; there are 42 phonemes in Russian and 44 in English. According to Trubetzkoy, the number of phonemes has been found to range from little more than 20 in some Polynesian languages to about 75 in certain Caucasian dialects. In French and German although the qualities of phonemes differ widely, their quantity is also about the same: 32 in French and 40 in German.

There is no such thing, for example, as a general or universal phoneme /k/. There is, however, an English /k/, a Russian /k/, an Arabic /k/ and so on. Each is a feature peculiar to its own language and therefore irrelevant to any other language.

Phonemic variants or allophones, are very important for language teaching because they are pronounced in actual speech and though their mispronunciation does not always influence the meaning of the words, their misuse makes a person’s speech sound as “foreign”.

The variant of the phoneme which is described as the most representative and free from the influence of the neighbouring phonemes is called principal.

The variants used in actual speech are called subsidiary.

E.x. the English /l/ is realized in actual speech and it’s clear in the initial position: light, let.

and it’s dark in the terminal position: hill, mill.

In Russian вопль, рубль where terminal /л/ is devoiced after voiceless /п/, /б/.

All the sounds in English are traditionally divided into 2 major classes. They are: consonants and vowels.

The distinction between them is based mainly on auditory effect. Consonants are known to have voice and noise combined, while vowels are sounds consisting of voice only. From the articulatory point of view the difference is due to the work of speech organs. In case of consonants various obstructions are made. In case of vowels no obstruction is made. So consonants are characterized by the so-called “close articulation”. The closure is formed in such a way that the air-stream is blocked, hindered or restricted. As a result consonants are sounds which have noise. That is their most defining characteristic.

Vowels are articulated when a voiced air-stream is shaped using the tongue and the lips to modify the overall shape of the mouth.


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