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Phonology. The idea of feature systems that we have been talking about in relation to phonetics also lends itself quite handily to the description of natural classes of sounds. Phonetic natural classes are groups of sounds in a language which share some articulatory or auditory feature.

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  • The idea of feature systems that we have been talking about in relation to phonetics also lends itself quite handily to the description of natural classes of sounds.
  • Phonetic natural classes are groups of sounds in a language which share some articulatory or auditory feature.
  • In order for a group of sounds to be a natural class, it must include all of the sounds that share a particular feature or group of features, and not include sounds that don’t.
  • We have already talked about several natural classes of sounds, such as stops, fricatives, nasals, affricates, etc.
  • To talk fully about phonetic natural classes, however, we need to clarify a few other features.
  • Some sound classes are based on articulation or production:
  • For example, both labio-dental and bilabial involve the lips.
  • Therefore, we can group them together under the term labial.
  • In English, these sounds are [m, b, p, f, v, w]
  • In English, the sound [w] doesn’t occur after any of these sounds.
  • We can use the term labial to simplify the description: [w] doesn’t occur after labial sounds.
  • Other natural classes are based on sound quality, or auditory properties.
  • One example of a natural class based on auditory properties is Sibilants.
  • Take a look at the pronunciation of the plural suffix in English, which we will label -s
  • This suffix is pronounced in three different ways, depending on the last sound in the noun to which it is added.
  • If the noun ends with a voiced sound the phonetic form is [z].
  • If the noun ends in a voiceless sound the phonetic form is [s].
  • However, after such words as rich, bush, kiss, garages, rouge, and maze, (in other words, [s, z, , , t, d,]) the form is [z].
  • This group of sounds all differ in respect to voicing, place, and manner of articulation.
  • However, they do have an auditory property in common: a high pitched hissing sound.
  • These sounds, therefore, form a natural class called sibilants.
  • So using this natural class, we can state a generalization:
  • + plural  [z] / after a sibilant
  • This rule states that the sound occurs in a general context, rather than having to specify for each individual context. 
  • Other classes include:
  • Obstruents, which are sounds produced with an ‘obstruction’ of air flow, namely stops, fricatives, affricates.
  • Sonorants, which are consonants produced with a relatively open passage for the air flow, including nasals, approximants and others (or nasals, liquids, glides, and others).
distinctive features
Distinctive Features
  • In every language, certain sounds are considered to be the “same” sound, even though they may be phonetically distinct.
  • For example, native speakers consider the [l] in lay to be the same sound as that in play, even though the former is voiced and the latter voiceless.
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Distinctive Features
  • Liquids and glides in English are ordinarily voiced, but when they follow a voiceless obstruent in speech, they are pronounced as voiceless consonants.
  • proof [pruf] sleep


  • quick [kwk]

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Distinctive Features
  • Native speakers overlook the fact that the [p] in pat and spat are phonetically different and just consider them both to be /p/.
  • Hindi speakers, however, can’t ignore the difference.
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Distinctive Features
  • Take the following data, for example:
  • [kl] ‘wicked person’ [kl] ‘yesterday’
  • [kapi] ‘copy’ [kapi] ‘ample’
  • [pl] ‘fruit’ [pl] ‘moment’ [bl] ‘strength’
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Distinctive Features
  • In general, speakers will attend to phonetic differences between two (or more) sounds only when the choice between the sounds can change the meaning of a word, - that is, can cause a distinction in meaning.
  • Such sounds are said to be distinctive with respect to one another.
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Distinctive Features
  • So, how do we determine when two sounds are distinctive?
  • One way to determine whether two sounds are distinctive is to identify a minimal pair - a pair of words that differ only by a single sound in the same position - and which have different meanings - but which are otherwise identical.
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Distinctive Features
  • Some examples from English are:
  • tot vs. hot
  • tap vs. top
  • tap vs. tab
  • Let’s take a second to go back and look again at the examples from Hindi.
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Distinctive Features
  • [kl] ‘wicked person’ [kl] ‘yesterday’
  • [kapi] ‘copy’ [kapi] ‘ample’
  • [pl] ‘fruit’ [pl] ‘moment’ [bl] ‘strength’
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Distinctive Features
  • What must be considered minimal pairs in Hindi?
  • What sounds do Hindi speakers consider distinctive?
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Distinctive Features
  • Before we proceed any further, we need to discuss some definitions:
  • The first definition we need to consider is that of a Phone, which is simply an individual speech sound.
  • The second definition to consider is that of a Phoneme, which is a class of speech sounds which are identified by a speaker as the same sound.
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Distinctive Features
  • The members of these classes are called Allophones.
  • Thus, an allophone is a phone that has been classified as belonging to some class (phoneme).
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Distinctive Features
  • In English, p in pat and spat are allophones of the same phoneme in English.
  • In Hindi, these sounds are allophones of different phonemes.
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Distinctive Features
  • Symbols representing phonemes are written with slash marks instead of brackets.
  • So, in English, we would have one phoneme labeled /p/, with allophones labeled [p] and [p]
  • But in Hindi, we would have two separate phonemes, labeled either /p/ or /p/
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Distinctive Features
  • By giving a description like this, linguists are attempting to show that the phonological system of a language has two levels.
  • The more concrete level involves the physical reality of phonetic segments (which is what phonetics looks at).
  • Phonemes are more on the psychological level; they are more abstract.
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Distinctive Features
  • Allophones are physical units of linguistic structure.
  • Phonemes are psychological units of linguistic structure.
  • Phonemes are not directly observable; allophones are.
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Distinctive Features
  • Writing systems also reflect this reality. In English, we don’t make the orthographic distinction between [p] and [p]. In Hindi, they do.
  • In general, alphabetic writing systems tend to be phonemic rather than phonetic.
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Distinctive Features
  • To find out which sounds are thought of by a native speaker as the same sound, and which sounds are distinctive to one another, it is important to look at where these sounds occur in a language.
  • In other words, linguists try to discover what the phonemes of a language are by examining the distribution of that language’s phones.
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Distinctive Features
  • The Distribution of a phone is ‘the set of phonetic environments in which it occurs.’
  • Two speech sounds in a language will either be in overlapping distributionor complementary distribution with respect to one another.
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Distinctive Features
  • Overlapping distribution occurs when the sets of phonetic environments in which the sounds occur are partially or completely identical.
  • For example, consider [p] and [b]:
  • ‘bait’ [bet] ‘date’ [det]
  • ‘lobe’ [lob] ‘load’ [lod]
  • ‘knobs’ [nabz] ‘nods’ [nadz]
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Distinctive Features
  • Since the sets of possible phonetic environments overlap, we say that [b] and [d] are in overlapping distribution in English.
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Distinctive Features
  • Most sounds that are in overlapping distribution are contrastive with respect to one another, which is another way of saying they are distinctive sounds.
  • Consider [b] and [d] above: they form minimal pairs.
  • Since the difference between [b] and [d] can result in contrastive meaning, we say that [b] and [d] are in contrastive distribution.
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Distinctive Features
  • These two distinctive phones are classified as being allophones of two separate phonemes.
  • Thus, [b] is an allophone of /b/ and [d] is an allophone of /d/.
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Distinctive Features
  • Some other phones that are in overlapping distribution are in free variation. As an example:
  • Leap [lip] leap [lip ]
  • Soap [sop] soap [sop ]
  • Troop [trup] troop [trup ]
  • Happy [haepi] *[haep i]
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Distinctive Features
  • These sounds are in overlapping distribution, because they share some of the same environments: they both appear at the end of words.
  • Unlike [b] and [p], however, there are no minimal pairs.
  • In other words, although they contain the same sounds but one, these words do not contrast in meaning.
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Distinctive Features
  • These sounds are interchangeable in word-final position.
  • So we say that they are allophones of the same phoneme.
  • For example, [p] and [p ] are allophones of /p/
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Distinctive Features
  • Complementary Distribution is just the opposite of overlapping distribution.
  • To understand this, think of the term ‘complementary.’ Two complementary parts make up a whole.
  • People in this class, for example, may be divided up into those who wear glasses and those who don’t.
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Distinctive Features
  • These two sets of people complement each other.
  • They are mutually exclusive. That is, they are non-overlapping, but together they make up the whole class.
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Distinctive Features
  • As an example, consider the sounds [p] and [p]
  • Spat [spt] pat [pt]
  • Spool [spul] pool [pul]
  • Speak [spik] peek [pik]
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Distinctive Features
  • As you can see, [p] and [p] are not in overlapping distribution.
  • In other words, they do not occur in the same phonetic environment.
  • In fact, they are in complementary distribution.
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Distinctive Features
  • First: There are no minimal pairs involving the [p] vs. [p.
  • Second: [p] occurs after [s] but not word initially. [p] occurs word initially, but not after [s].
  • Since these sounds appear in different phonetic environments there can be no pair of words composed of identical strings of sounds except for [p] in one and [p] in the other.
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Distinctive Features
  • Phones that are in complementary distribution are allophones of a single phoneme.
  • In this case, [p] and [p] are allophones of the phoneme /p/.
  • The appearance of one allophone or the other is predictable when those allophones are in complementary distribution.
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Distinctive Features
  • Recall that phonemes and allophones belong to different levels of structure in language.
  • Phonemes are mental entities.
  • Allophones/phones are physical events.
  • So what is the connection between the two levels?
  • The mapping between phonemic and phonetic elements is accomplished using phonological rules.
phonological rules
Phonological Rules
  • A speaker’s knowledge of phonological rules allows him or her to “translate” phonemes into actual sounds.
  • Knowledge of these rules forms part of a speaker’s linguistic competence.
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Phonological Rules
  • The following is a representation of the process:

Phonemic form


phonetic form

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Phonological Rules
  • In other words, phonological rules apply to the phonemic form to produce the phonetic form.
  • To accept this is to accept the notion that there is something called an underlying form.
  • In the linguistic literature, this underlying form is called the Underlying Representation or UR.
phonological rules46
Phonological Rules
  • There are several different ways that we can classify phonological rules.
  • One of the most common types of phonological rules is called Assimilation.
  • Rules involving assimilation cause a sound to become more like a neighboring sound with respect to some feature.
phonological rules47
Phonological Rules
  • In other words, the segment affected by the rule assimilates or takes on a feature from a nearby (usually adjacent) sound.
  •  For example:.
  •  I can ask [ay kæn æsk]
  • I can bake [ay kæm bek]
  • I can go [ay kæŋ go]
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Phonological Rules
  • Another type of assimilation is dental assimilation, as in the following examples:
  • width [wdθ]
  • health [hεlθ]
  • unthinkable [nθŋkbl]
  • in this [ns]
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Phonological Rules
  • Another example is vowel nasalization:
  • pit [pt] pin [pn]
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Phonological Rules
  • Other phonological rules involve dissimilation. Rules involving dissimilation cause two neighboring sounds to become less alike with respect to some feature.
  • Dissimilation rules are less common than assimilation rules, at least in English.
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Phonological Rules
  • One example of a dissimilation rule is fricative dissimilation:
  • /θ/ changes to [t] following another fricative:
  • fifth phonemically [ffθ]
  • phonetically often realized as [fft]
  • sixth phonemically [sksθ]
  • but often realized as [skst]
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Phonological Rules
  • Another classification is insertion (also called epenthesis).
  • Rules of insertion cause a segment not present at the phonemic level to be added to the phonetic realization of a word.
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Phonological Rules
  • One example of an insertion rule is voiceless stop insertion. Between a nasal and a voiceless fricative, a voiceless stop with the same place of articulation as the nasal is inserted.
  • strength /strεŋθ/ → [strεŋkθ]
  • hampster /hæmster/ → [hæmpster]
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Phonological Rules
  • Another classification is Deletion. Deletion rules eliminate a sound. Such rules apply more frequently to unstressed syllables and in casual speech.
  • /h/ - deletion: /h/ may be deleted in unstressed syllables.
  • In the sentence, ‘He handed her his hat,’ the UR is:
  •  /hi hændd hz ht/
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Phonological Rules
  • but is often represented on the surface as:
  • [hi hændd r ht]
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Phonological Rules
  • The final type of rule that we will concern ourselves with is called metathesis
  • These rules change the order of sounds
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Phonological Rules
  • For example, for many children, the word that is normally pronounced
  • [spgi] ([spki])
  • gets pronounced as
  • [psgi] ([pski])
  • How about animal?
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Phonological Rules
  • The Format for representing Phonological Rules
  • The basic format for specifying phonological rules is as follows:
  • A → B/ C __ D
  • This format is meant to be read as “A becomes B in the environment following C and preceding D.”
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Phonological Rules
  • For example, here are the formulations for two of the rules we have discussed so far:
  • Vowel → + nasal/ ___ nasal
  • Alveolar → + dental/ ____ dental