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Query Details

Query Subject:   What exactly are allophones?
Author:   Martin Salzmann
Submitter Email:  click here to access email

Linguistic LingField(s):  Phonology

Query:   Dear all,

I'm currently trying to teach the basics of phonology to my students
beginning with the classical distinction between phonemes and

Now to my great surprise, I've encountered a problem that has never come
to my attention before: In the classical structuralist sense, phonemes
belong to the domain of "langue", i.e. the phonological system, while
(allo)phones belong to the domain of "parole", they are the actual
phonetic realizations of a phoneme. No problem so far.
A phoneme like /i:/ (any other vocalic phoneme could serve as example as
well) in English is realized as [i:] - but this phonetic notation is of
course an abstraction since every [i:] that is uttered is somewhat
different - so we'd have to say that there is an infinite number of
allophones of the phoneme /a/. Usually one only says that there is one
allophone - probably because all the realizations are considered in some
way similar.
But what about complementarily distributed allophones? Take for
instance the English voiceless plosives which depending on the
environment are realized either as aspirated or non aspirated. These are
called allophones but they are again an abstraction, each of the
allophones, e.g. [p +asp] and [p -asp] can be realized in an infinite
number of different ways. Now what should be called an allophone? If the
term were restricted to the actual phonetic realization (as in classical
structuralism), we'd have to find a new term for the "abstract
So do we end up with tree levels instead of two? Or to put the question
differently: Which phenomena belong to phonology, which to phonetics?
Since complementary distribution is an abstract regular pattern not
solely due to physiological necessity, i'd have to belong to the domain
of phonology in my opinion. But is there a possibility to express this
in classical structural phonology or is the theory just simply flawed or
is my argumentation faulty?

I believe, the picture would be different in generative phonology. If
I'm not completely mistaken, the three-way contrast indicated above is
in fact represented by the classical derivational model: There are the
URs (roughly comparable with the phonemes) and the surface
representations. As far as I can tell, these surface representations are
not phonetic entities, but still feature bundles (different from the URs
only in being fully specified and possibly having undergone some rules).
This is how the are in the phonological component (probably
corresponding to what I called "abstract allophones" above). What in the
classical structuralist sense is called a phone, conceived as a physical
entity, would then be the result of the interaction of the phonological
component with the sensory system.

There is a third problem for which I've been unable to find a satisfying
solution. Quite often, a distinction is made between complementary
distribution and Coarticulation, the distinguishing factor being
physiological (in)evitability. In a major textbook like Spencer
Phonology (1996), the different pronunciations of /k/ in <key> and
<car>, the first palatal, the second velar, are considered an instance
of coarticulation because of a physiological inevitability. Now this
inevitability is more properly called a physiological inevitability of
the native speakers of English since the two sounds can be contrastive
in a number of languages, for instance Turkish. But if there is no
universal physiological necessity to pronounce the sounds this way,
couldn't one regard the two realizations as complementarily distributed
allophones or surface representations?
In German phonology, when speaking of complementary distribution, the
example always adduced is the distribution of the voiceless velar and
palatal fricatives; There occurrence depends on the value for the
feature [back] of the preceding vowel (i.e. velar after a back vowel,
palatal after a front vowel). For a native speaker of standard high
German, this distribution is about as physiologically inevitable as the
key/car distribution for a native speaker of English, but no one has
ever spoken of coarticulation in this case. What might be the reasons?
Am I just simply wrong? Represent these examples truly different

I'm not very sure about all of this and would appreciate your help very
much. I'd be grateful for corrections, clarifications and suggestions of
any kind or perhaps also reports of a similar teaching experience.

Thanks in advance

Martin Salzmann

Please respond to
or alternatively: salzmann.m@swissonline.ch
LL Issue: 10.1702
Date posted: 09-Nov-1999


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