第九章:音位和音位变体
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第九章:音位和音位变体.

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  • It was not until the Prague school that phonology got its independence from phonetics. As one critical milestone of the linguistics development, phoneme began to be known and researched on by the academia. Although the definition “phoneme” has long been introduced to me ever since we had first contacts with Linguistics, it is still exacting to make an integrated and detailed explanation of it.


  • Here by means of writing this paper, I am going to refer to some elaborate books and meanwhile try to check the feasibility of these theories so that I can have a deeper understanding of phoneme and the essential branch of linguistics------phonology whose theory evolved over the years centered round the phoneme concept. And even today most of the linguistics base their phonological analysis and derive their principles of phonology from phonemes and distinctive features.


  • Phone is the phonetic unit or segment of speech sounds which we hear and produce during language communication. That may included the most detailed and subtle description of the uttered sound, though it seems impossible to attain this. Usually we need to resort to phonetic analysis to detect the precise、concrete phones. Phones are collected from the aspect of natures of sound materials irrespective of their functions in the actual utterance.



  • But phoneme is the ideal sound image in a speaker’s mind. It is not the sound actually produced or heard, but an abstract set of sounds in a language that enable its speakers to distinguish meaning in the sound string they say or hear. Also phonemes are the minimal segments of language systems that can distinguish meanings. A transcription into such phonemic symbols is called a broad transcription.

  • What connect phones with phonemes are allophones. Allophones are the different productions of a phoneme by the speakers. Phoneme can only make sense through the representation of allophones.

  • Of course, allophones themselves are phones which represent a phoneme in different phonetic environments.


  • It is indicated from the definition of phoneme that it fulfills the function to differentiate meanings. There ,in 直ぐ(directly, /sugu/)and空く(to be empty, /suku/), are totally four phonemes, /s/、/u/、/g/、/k/. Here the two words form minimal pairs, because all the phonemes here are identical except the second syllable’s onset, with one /k/ and the other one /g/. Naturally, their meanings are unrelated at all.


  • Hence, we are able to use the criteria whether the two sounds distinguish meanings to detect all phonemes. Practically the available tool for us to make out the phonemes is whether the sounds can form minimal pairs. If the word’s meaning changes by substituting one sound of it for another, they can be said to be minimal pairs.


  • From the above example of /suku/ and /sugu/, we can find that /k/ and/g/ are two phonemes in Japanese. But how can we identify phones that actualize the same phoneme, i.e. belong to the allophones of one phoneme? According to R. H. Robins, sounds are grouped into a single class or phoneme if they can be shown to be phonetically similar (having something in common, articulatorily or auditorily distinctive) and in complementary distribution (not occurring in the same environment and so not distinctive) (Robins, 2000, p. 123).


  • Fox example, in the following two English words pan and span, respectively transcribed as [phan] and [span], [ ph ] and [ p ][ are quite alike in that they are both bilabial、plosive and consonantal. The only phonetic distinction lies in the whether they are aspirated or not. But according to the phonological rules of English, the phone [ph] only follows the initial [s] in a consonant cluster.

  • Thus the two phones are justified as two allophones of the phoneme /p/. Even if we pronounce [ph] in the sound strings of span, the speakers of English can still recognize the word they hear is span, not any other one, except that it will leave an impression of strangeness.


  • Basically, phonemes are concerned with the working and functioning of speech sounds in one specific language. That is to say, we have different numbers and kinds of phonemes in various languages, with one set of phonemes corresponding to one specific language. The examples we usually take for are the [ph] and [p]、[th] and [t]and [kh] and [k].



Free variation
free variation. allophones of /p/

  • Although the two may be phonetically different sounds, they are interchangeable and do not distinguish meanings. There may be several causes for that, including idiolect differences、dialectal differences, etc.

  • Although it seems this does not meet the qualifications of complementary distribution, it does not mean they are necessarily different phonemes. For example, the two sound units [w]、[v], though with quite distinctive phonemic features in English, being one bilabial and the other labio-dental, are free variations in Chinese.


  • When we Chinese people pronounce characters with the phoneme /w/, it is quite likely that we produce it as /v/ subconsciously, which causes no hindrance to the perception. As a matter of fact, due to this free variation, there quite a lot of students who do not distinguish with the two sounds when pronouncing the two phonemes /w/ and /v/ in English. If so, a native English speaker would face great trouble and bewilderment in identifying some words` meanings, e.g. the two words, wane /wein/ and vain /vein/.


  • In addition to the independence of phonology from phonetics, Prague school has proposed the concept of distinctive features. Distinctive features are those features that distinguish one sound segment from another. Each phoneme is a bundle of distinctive features, e.g. the English phoneme /m/ can be thought as the integration of +nasal, +voiced, +bilabial, etc. As the notion is based on phonology and phonemes, distinctive features are sure to be language-specific.


  • Undoubtedly distinctive features derived from phonetic features. It is well known that each phone has its specific features that distinguish it from other phones, e.g. the phone [  ] can be analyzed as +lateral, +voiced, +consonantal, +velarized, which marks its demarcation from the clear [l], [r] and other similar phones.


  • Thus distinctive features may be defined as those phonetics features that distinguish between different phonemes, not allophones of the same phones.

  • In the 1950s, with the help of acoustic phonetics, Jakobson, another leading representative of the Prague School, have endeavored to define distinctive features from the characteristic contrasting acoustic features displayed in the sound waves. Hence there invented the features of grave vs. acute, strident vs. mellow, etc.


  • Another significant contribution of him is the invention of “binarism” applied in distribution of distinctive features. A feature can be thought of as having two values: “+” and “–”. We can make use of distinctive features to compare different sets of speech sounds to determine the similarities and differences among sound units.


  • Another significant contribution of him is the invention of “binarism” applied in distribution of distinctive features. A feature can be thought of as having two values: “+” and “–”. We can make use of distinctive features to compare different sets of speech sounds to determine the similarities and differences among sound units.


  • Jakobson specified 12 pairs of distinctive features distinguished by the different sets of frequencies and differences in shape and structure of the sound waves,

  • Vocalic/Non-vocalic, Consonantal/Non-Consonantal, Compact/Diffuse, Tense/Lax, Voiced/Voiceless, Nasal/Oral, Discontinuous/Continuous, Strident/Mellow and Checked/Unchecked belonging to the sonority features, and Grave/Acute, Flat/Non-Flat and Sharp/Non-sharp belonging to totality features.


  • On the basis of “binarism” theory, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle put forward a new set of distinctive features in their work The Sound Pattern of English (SPE).

  • In spite of some direct derivatives from Jakobson’s mode, the new distinctive features are mostly studied from the angle of physiology. The features have been expanded to more than 30 pairs, which are differentiated into seven groups: major class features; cavity feature; manner of articulation features; source features; prosodic features; protensity features; tonality features.


  • Rules of phonological forms of past tense forms: Morris Halle put forward a new set of distinctive features in their work

  • a.                 The past tense morpheme﹛-ed﹜ takes the form [d] if the last phoneme of the verb is a either a vowel or a voiced consonant except [d].

  • b.                The form is [t] if the last phoneme of the verb is a voiceless consonant except [t].

  • c.                 The form is [id] if the last phoneme of the verb is [t] or[d].


  • We may simply reduce this rule to this: I-insertion after the [t] or [d]; Devoicing [d] after a voiceless consonant. Put these rules in Generative Phonology, it should be as follows: –nasal

  • I-INSERATION Ø I –continuant +d

  • + coronal

  • +consonantal

  • DEVOICING [–sonorant] → [–voice] #

  • -Voice


  • For all the modifications made subsequently, their theory maintained its basis on binary features and markedness mainly. Of course, it can never be so perfect that further evolution is undesired. For example, all feature values are not necessarily binary and there are also univalent features. In one word, the theory of distinctive features is still on the way to perfection and maturity.


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