Lecture 3 + Phonemes + Allophones + Symbols Phonemic symbols Phonetic symbols + Transcriptions Broad/Phonemic transcription Narrow/ Phonetic transcription + Rules for English allophones Phonemes

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Lecture 3

+ Phonemes

+ Allophones

+ Symbols

+ Transcriptions

+ Rules for English allophones


  • A phoneme is the smallest segment of sound which can distinguish two words.

  • Take the words “pit” and “bit”. These differ only in their initial sound. “pit” begins with /p/ and “bit” begins with /b/. This is the smallest amount by which these two words could differ and still remain distinct forms. Any smaller subdivision would be impossible because English doesn’t subdivide /p/ or /b/. Therefore, /p/ and /b/ are considered two phonemes.

Minimal pairs

  • Pair of words such as “pit” and “bit”, “pet” and “pit”, “back” and “bag” which differ by only one phoneme in identical environment are known as minimal pairs.

  • One way to identify the phonemes of any language is to look for minimal pairs.


  • There are 44 phonemes in English. They can be divided into two types: consonants (24) and vowels (20).

  • Each phoneme is meaningless in isolation. It becomes meaningful only when it is combined with other phonemes.

  • Phonemes form a set of abstract units that can be used for writing down a language systematically and unambiguously.


  • Allophones are the variants of phonemes that occur in speech.

  • Reasons: the way a phoneme is pronounced is conditioned by the sounds around it or by its position in the word. For example: /t/





[ t̪ ]

get there

Phonemes and Allophones

The crucial distinction between phonemes and allophones is that substituting one phoneme for another will result in a word with a different meaning (that’s why phonemes can be defined as meaning-distinguishing sounds) as well as a different pronunciation, but substituting allophones only results in a different pronunciation of the same words.


  • Phonemic symbols: are symbols for phonemes. The number of phonemic symbols must be exactly the same as the number of phonemes we decide to exist in the language. In RP (BBC English), there are 44 phonemic symbols.

  • Phonetic symbols: are symbols for allophones. They are used to give an accurate label to an allophone of a phoneme or to represent sounds more accurately. Phonetic symbols usually make use of diacritics.

Phonemic/ Broad transcription

  • A phonemic transcription is a transcription in which each phoneme is represented by one phonemic symbol. In other words, in a phonemic transcription, every speech sound must be identified as one of the phonemes and written down with an appropriate symbol.

  • A phonemic transcription does not show a great deal of phonetic detail and is placed between slanting lines.

Phonetic/Narrow transcription

- A phonetic transcription is a transcription which contains a lot of information about the exact quality of the sounds. It shows more phonetic detail such as aspiration, length, nasalization…., by using a wide variety of symbols and in many case diacritics.

- In a phonetic transcription, the symbols are used to represent precise phonetic values, not just to represent phonemes.

- A phonetic transcription is usually put between square brackets.

Rules for English consonant allophones

1. Initial voiceless stops are aspirated. [h]

e.g. pie [phai] tea [thi:] key [khi:]

2. Voiceless stops are unaspirated after /s/ at the beginning of a syllable. [o]

e.g. stay [st˚ei] sky [sk˚ai] speak [sp˚i:k]

3. Stops are unexploded when they occur before another stop. [o]

e.g. apt [æp ˚t] rubbed [rʌb˚d] looked [luk˚t] stopped [stɔp˚t]

4. Approximants /w, r, j/ and the lateral /l/ are devoiced when they occur after initial /p, t, k/. [o]

e.g. play [pl̥ei] queen [kw̥i:n] twin [tw̥i:n]

5. Voiceless stops become glottal stop plus voiceless stops when they are syllable final and after a vowel.

e.g. tip /tiʔ/ kick /kiʔ/ pit /piʔ/

6. Voiced obstruents (stops and fricatives: /b, d, g, v, ʒ, z/) are devoiced when they occur at the end of an utterance or before a voiceless sound. [­­o]

e.g. improve /impru:v̥/ big /biɡ̥/ add two /æd̥tu:/

7. Voiced stops and affricate /b, d, g, dʒ/ are voiceless when syllable initial, except when immediately preceded by a voiced sound. [­­o]

e.g. dog /d̥ɔɡ/ big dog

8. /n/ becomes syllabic [.] at the end of a word when immediately after obstruents (stops + fricatives).

e.g. garden /̍ɡɑdn̩/ listen /̍lisn̩/ reason /̍ri:zn̩/

Notes: /n/ does not become syllabic after /m, n, tʃ/

e.g. question /̍kwestʃən/ salmon /̍sæmən/

9. The lateral /l/ becomes syllabic [.] at the end of a word when immediately after a consonant.

e.g. paddle [̍phædl̩] castle [̍khɑ:sl̩] noble [̍nəʊbl̩]

Note: /l/ does not become syllabic after /dʒ/ and /tʃ/.

e.g satchel [̍sætʃəl] angel [̍eindʒəl]

10. Alveolars become dentalized [ ̪ ] before dentals.

e.g. eighth [eit̪θ] tenth [then̪θ] wealth [wel̪θ] get there [ɡet̪ðeə]

11. Velar stops become more front as the following vowel in the same syllable becomes more front. [+ ] [+] [-] [-]

e.g. cat [khæt] get cook good

12. The lateral /l/ is velarized when after a vowel or before a consonant at the end of a word. [ɫ]

e.g. well [weɫ] dealt [di:ɫt]

13.Vowels become shorter before voiceless consonants in the same syllable.

e.g. neat [nǐ:t] pace get back

14. Vowels become nasalized before nasals [ ͂ ]

e.g. song [sɔ͂ŋ] ban [bæ͂n]

Variations of Plosives

1. Incomplete plosive/plosion: Stop + Stop

- When one stop consonant is immediately followed by another, as in “act” /ækt/, the closure of the speech organs for the second consonant is made while the closure for the first is still in position. The first consonant is then considered as incomplete plosive. There is usually only one plosion for the second consonant.

- The “missing explosion” happens whenever one stop consonant is followed by another stop or an affricate.

- When a stop is followed by itself, there is again only one explosion, but the closure’s held for double the usual time.

- When one of the strong/weak pair /b,p/ is followed by the other as in “what day”, “big cake”; there is only one explosion, but the closure is held for double the usual time, and the strength changes during this time.

2. Nasal explosion /t,d/ + /n/

- When /t/ or /d/ are followed by syllabic /n̩/ as in ‘button”, “garden”, the explosion of the stop takes place through the nose. This nasal explosion happens in this way: the vocal organs from /t/ and /d/ in the usual way with the soft palate raised to shut off the nasal cavity and the tongue tip on the alveolar ridge. But instead of taking the tongue tip away from the alveolar ridge to give the explosion, we leave it in the same position and lower the soft palate so that the breath explodes out of the nose rather than the mouth.

e.g. written, hidden, certain, Britain, burden, wooden, pardon.

3. Lateral explosion /t,d/ + /l/

- /t/ and /d/ are made with the tongue tip on the alveolar ridge and the sides of the tongue firmly touching the sides of the hard palate. /l/ is made with the tongue tip touching the alveolar ridge but the sides of the tongue away from the sides of the palate so that the breath passes out laterally. The simplest way to go from /t/ and /d/ to /l/ is to leave the tongue tip on the alveolar ridge and only lower the sides and that’s we do. It is called lateral explosion.

e.g. little, middle, battle, bottle.

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