LINGUIST List 10.1817

Mon Nov 29 1999

Disc: Re: Issue 10.1778 What Exactly Are Allophones

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. JFThiels, Re: Issue 10.1778 What exactly are allophones?

Message 1: Re: Issue 10.1778 What exactly are allophones?

Date: Sun, 28 Nov 1999 17:17:15 EST
From: JFThiels <>
Subject: Re: Issue 10.1778 What exactly are allophones?

In a message dated 99-11-27 23:47:28 EST, you write:

<< Coming belatedly to the matter of allophones:
 It seems to me that any theorizing on the allophone has to consider at all
 times the fact that allophones are not really physical
 entities but rather psychological ones. You can analyze a
 given pronunciation phenomenon following strictly phonetic criteria and
 discover that it is exactly the same phenomenon that occurred at, say, two
 other previous times but miss out on the fact that the language user
 thought that the first two times it was the 'same' sound while the third
 time it was a 'different' sound. Conversely, three different
 pronunciation phenomena were adjuged by the language user as the 'same'
 sound. >>


I think you are also raising an important point, not only about psychological 
versus physical phenomena (which is one way to read the type/token 
distinction mentioned in some previous postings) but also that the 
description is at the level of psychological reality to the user, and not to 
the researcher...I'm not very well read up on current phonological theory, 
but I believe that phonological theory may be diverging in terms of 
explanatory goals--whereas generative phonology has been concerned with this 
level of psychological reality to the user and with the language user's 
overall judgments of "same" and "different " sounds and how these constitute 
a phonological system, more recent approaches may in fact try to theorize at 
the level of supposed cognitive structures inaccessible to speaker's normal 
awareness, although this may be a simplification...does anyone have 
information about this? 

I'm interested in this partly because of the difference in explaining 
phonology to linguists or phonological specialists and explaining basic 
principles to, for example, second language learners who are not especially 
trained in linguistics--if we perceive a difference between "voiced" and 
"unvoiced" for example, does it help a learner to know that the unvoiced is 
actually voiced, but with a later onset time? 

Isn't it really the perceived contrast between the two that makes a 
difference to the language user (if not the language specialist who can 
identify the "real" processes or the "real" allophones)? If that process is 
normally below conscious awareness, is that level of detail useful or even 
"real" if what is being heard is "unvoiced" as a phonemic contrast? 

A discussion about this point on the Linguist List a couple of years back 
raised this question for me specifically in relation to ESL and the kinds of 
explanations that teachers were giving their students--considering that I 
worked with non-linguist but educated and literate populations who had 
virtually no interest in that level of information.

It seems that some important aspects of this discussion are: 

- the relationship of "type-level" description (pattern) to token-level 
- the meaning of psychological reality and its relationship to the 
description of a phonemic system, specifically, is one discussing speakers' 
habitual awareness, trained awareness, or cognitive structures and processing
- the relationship of phonological theory to phonetic theory (and perhaps the 
differential use of the concept "allophone" in both areas)
- the relationship of sound differences related to meaning to other kinds of 
regular, sound patterning which are not related to propositional, 
denotational meaning (to put it crudely)

Perhaps some discussion of what kinds of explanation for whom (and by whom) 
would open up some topics on phonological theory only implicitly touched upon 

John Thiels
Ph.D. student
Department of Anthropology
Brandeis University
Waltham, MA 
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