Phonological Units: The Phoneme - United African Reporter's

Phonological Units: The Phoneme



Having established that you know the segments of the English language, I would like to inform you that the consonant and vowel sounds that you have learnt refer to the phonemes of English.

Each language of the world has its own inventory of phonemes and many languages differ in sounds. Thus, a language may have a sound which another language does not have.

For example, the Yoruba language has labiovelar [kp] and [gb] which the English language does not have. Likewise, the English language has the voiced labiodental fricative [v] which Yoruba does not have.

However, before defining the phoneme, the following terms must be defined:

  • Phonetics
  • Phone/Allophone
  • Phonetic/Narrow/Allophonic transcription
  • Phonology
  • Phoneme
  • Phonemic/Broad transcription

Phonetics: Phonetics as a field of study is a branch of Linguistics which deals with the study of speech sounds in all languages. It does this on the basis of phones. Thus, phoneticians are interested in all sounds that can be produced in all natural languages of the world. So, when the words phonetic and phonetically are used, it is from this perspective.

Phone: A phone is a basic underlying human sound; that is, a sound that can be made in natural language. Therefore, all sounds that can be articulated in all languages of the world are phonetically referred to as phones. Additionally, an allophone is a variant of a phone which takes specific features in context. (More will be discussed on allophones in a separate topic of the same title.)

In the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (CEPD), right before the first page of entries, the International Phonetic Alphabet is displayed. It will be gross repetition to display the page in this material (check out the page). The symbols on the page cover every sound that can be produced in all languages of the world. At this level, we say that those symbols are phones.

Phonetic/Narrow/Allophonic transcription: Transcription refers to the representation of sounds using phonetic symbols. The most popularly used phonetic symbols are those of the International Phonetic Association (IPA) which is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Therefore, phonetic transcription is a kind of transcription which represent sounds using phones, allophones and diacritics. (You will also learn what a diacritic is when learning about allophones.) Phonetic transcription can also be called narrow or allophonic transcription.

Phonology: Phonology as field of study is a branch of Linguistics which deals with the study of systems and patterns of speech sounds in a specific language. So, phonological and phonologically are used as a means of restricting the subject of discussion to a particular language. Take, for instance, when we say phonological processes, we mean that processes that sounds undergo which occur in specific languages. To illustrate this is the frequency at which epenthesis/insertion occurs in Yoruba language as opposed to few cases of epenthesis in English. Ah, the Igbo language operates vowel harmony by sub-classifying its vowels into two and ensuring that a vowel from one class does not occur in the same word with a vowel from the other class.

It is because of this perspective that phonologists study a specific language while phoneticians study all languages. There can, therefore, be Yoruba phonologists, Igbo phonologists, English phonologists and more. But once phonetician is attached to someone’s nomenclature, the languages he or she studies are nit restricted to those he or she is familiar with.

Phonemic/Broad transcription: Phonemic or broad transcription is a kind of transcription which represents sounds using only the phonemes of a language. For instance, it has been established that there are forty-four sounds in the English language; therefore, those sounds refer to the phonemes of the English language.

Definition of the Phoneme

When, however, specific languages select sounds peculiar to them, the selected phones become phonemes of those languages. For instance, [b] is a phone found in the IPA chart; but when it is identified as one of the English sounds, it becomes a phoneme of English /b/. (Phonemes are enclosed in slashes but phones and allophones are enclosed in square brackets.) There are phones which may be phonemes in a particular language but which are non-existent in another language. For example, [v] is a phone which has been identified as a phoneme of English but which is non-existent in Yoruba; likewise, the Yoruba language combines the bilabial plosive and the velar plosive to form phonemes /kp/ and /gb/, but both sounds are non-existent in English.

A phoneme, therefore, is defined as a distinctive, significant and contrastive sound of a language. This is a working definition because it illustrates what a phoneme is, practically and succinctly. There are three key-words to note in this definition: distinctive, significant and contrastive.

A phoneme is distinctive because no two phonemes have the same description or classification. The word ‘distinctive’ is derived from ‘distinct’ which means to be different or to stand apart. To this end, /p/ and /b/ may have the same place and manner of articulation but they still differ in voicing. Segments /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ are similar in tongue height (mid), tongue horizontal position (back) and shape of the lips (rounded), but they still differ in duration and tenseness. No two phonemes can have the exact same description or classification.

A phoneme is said to be significant (important) because it is needed as much as all other phonemes are needed to make meaning. Imagine how incomplete the meanings made in English would be were /t/ to be removed from the inventory of phonemes in English. We would not have words such as ‘it’ /ɪt/, ‘toy’ /tɔɪ/, ‘important’ /ɪmˈpɔː.tənt/, ‘port’ /pɔːt/ etc. Same way the infrequently occurring /h/ is needed to differentiate between ‘own’ /əʊn/ and ‘hone’ /həʊn/; ‘arm’ /ɑːm/ and ‘harm’ /hɑːm/. So, all phonemes are equally important. Equally significant.

A phoneme is said to be contrastive because the substitution of one for another results in a change in meaning. The word ‘contrastive’ is derived from ‘contrast’ which means ‘difference.’ To determine whether, truly, a phone is a phoneme of a language, phonologists do substitution tests and note where there is a change in meaning. You may have seen popular substitution tests (known as minimal pairs) but I would like to give you unusual ones: ‘you’ /juː/ and ‘coo’ /kuː/; ‘tailor’ /teɪlə/ and ‘sailor’ /seɪlə/; ‘loyal /lɔɪəl/ and ‘royal’ /rɔɪəl/; ‘how’ /haʊ/ and ‘bow’ /baʊ/; ‘table’ /teɪbəl/ and ‘fable’ /feɪbəl/; ‘joke’ /ʤəʊk/ and ‘soak’ /səʊk/ and ‘folk’ /fəʊk/; and many more.

Determination of Phonemes

As hinted earlier, phonemes are determined using two experiments: minimal pairs and minimal sets. Since phonemes are contrastive, different sounds are substituted for another and if the resultant word has a different meaning, the two sounds involved are phonemes.

It should be noted that there are cases where the substitution of one phoneme for another will result in a word which is non-existent in the language. This is fine: it just means that the two words are not minimal pairs but this does not nullify the phonemity of the sounds involved if they can be established as phonemes via other words. For instance, when /f/ is replaced with /h/ in ‘fame,’ the resultant word does not exist in English but this does not nullify the fact that both /f/ and /h/ are phonemes. In fact, ‘foam’ /fəʊm/ and ‘home’ /həʊm/ are minimal pairs validating their phonemity.

Minimal Pairs

A minimal pair is a set of two words containing essentially the same sounds but differing in ONLY one phonetic environment with a difference in meaning. It should be noted that we are concerned with phonemic symbols/sounds and NOT orthographic symbols/letters of the alphabet. Words such as ‘have’ and ‘rave’ are not a minimal pair. For two words to be a minimal pair, they have to contain essentially the same sounds and not necessarily the same letters. As illustrated next, the words contain different sounds: ‘have’ /hæv/ and ‘rave’ /reɪv/. The following sets of words are minimal pairs. Do well to transcribe them to confirm: ‘kin’ and ‘gin’; ‘cane’ and ‘gain’; ‘coal’ and ‘goal’; ‘back’ and ‘bag’; ‘peer’ and ‘pair’; ‘bee’ and ‘pee’; ‘tree’ and ‘true’; ‘true’ and ‘through’; ‘tell’ and ‘dell’; ‘make’ and ‘fake’; ‘dull’ and ‘cull’; ‘foot’ and ‘put’; ‘sue’ and ‘shoe’; ‘tender’ and ‘gender’; ‘far’ and ‘for’; ‘swim’ and ‘swarm’; ‘lord’ and ‘lead’; ‘girl’ and ‘gill’; ‘noise’ and ‘nose’; ‘base’ and ‘face’; etc.

I recommend Awonusi’s Coping with English Pronunciation because it contains numerous minimal pairs, especially of related sounds which you may be asked to contrast in your examination.

Minimal Sets

Closely related to the minimal pair is the minimal set. A minimal set is a set of words containing essentially the same sounds but differing in ONLY one phonetic environment with a difference in meaning in each word. While a minimal pair is a set of two words, a minimal set is a set of more than two words.

In the case of minimal set, words differing in just one phonetic environment are not sought after; specific environments are set in order to establish sounds that can fit into it. This is done by omitting just one sound in a particular word and trying out random sounds to see the ones that will make a meaningful word. I have drawn three of such environments and we will see how words will be generated to make up a minimal set.

  1. /waɪ_/: → / waɪp, waɪt, waɪd, waɪf, waɪz, waɪl, waɪn/. I observed that /p, t, d, f, z, l, n/ can fit the phonetic environment and make meaningful words different in meaning. The words are: wipe, white, wide, wife, wise, while, wine. These words are said to be a minimal set.
  2. /f_t/: → /fæt, fɪt, fʊt, fɑːt, faɪt, fiːt, fɔːt, feɪt/. I observed that /æ, ɪ, ʊ, ɑː, aɪ, iː, ɔː, eɪ/ fit into that frame while resulting in different words with different meaning. The words: fat, fit, foot, fart, fight, feat/feet, fort, fate; are said to be a minimal set.

iii. /_ɪt/: → /bɪt, pɪt, kɪt, fɪt, sɪt, ʃɪt, lɪt, wɪt, rɪt/. I also observed that /b, p, k, f, s, ʃ, l, w, r/ fit into the frame to produce words of different meaning. Therefore, ‘bit, pit, kit, fit, sit, shit, lit, wit, writ’ are a minimal set.

As students of Phonology, you are expected to create your own test frames and carry out experiments to generate as many minimal sets as you can.

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