Quick Summary:

Last week, we talked about phonemes, and how we have these mental categories in our mind that tell us what sounds matter for our language, and what changes we can shrug off as not being too important. But there's a lot of variation in our language that we can track using rules or constraints, so we can know what sounds for our language should go where.

That variation is known as allophony, and every phoneme has allophones that are what actually show up in the real world. We never hear the phonemes themselves; we only hear the allophones that get created from the phonemes. Allophones are produced by checking what's the appropriate version of a phoneme to get pronounced near the other sounds around it.

Linguists track what sounds show up where for a phoneme by using a distribution statement. We need to make those statements not just because it's easier to see what should get pronounced where that way, but also because different languages made up their own minds about what are separate phonemes, and also what allophones get created where. So much to keep track of as a speaker of a language, but we mostly do it all unconsciously!


Extra material:

Like all languages, English has lots of sounds that only show up as allophones. A lot of allophones are just small differences in the way you produce a given phoneme (but noticeable ones, depending on how close you're looking). But sometimes, one phoneme can have allophones that are pronounced really differently.

Let's look at a couple of /l/ sounds we have in North American English. Normally, at the beginning of a word, or even at the start of a syllable, we get a nice, clear [l] sound. You put your tongue up against that ridge behind your top teeth, curl the sides of your tongues down, and let the air flow out smoothly. That's what we see in words like light or leaf. Just try saying them and see how it feels.

But on the other hand, when we find that /l/ at the end of a word or syllable, it gets done differently. You push up the back of your tongue towards the roof of your mouth, the sides still curl down, and your tongue nudges up towards the same ridge at the front. That's the sound you make at the end of pull or feel. Try holding your tongue there and feeling the difference; it can really stand out strongly if you do leaf and then feel. This version of /l/, that you produce further back in your throat, is known as the dark l, and is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɫ].

These sounds are produced pretty differently, and sound different if you pay attention, but you probably never noticed it before! We don't generally hear the difference because they're part of the same phoneme. So even though they stand apart in pronunciation, they're part of the same category, and so our minds slot them together in the same ways.

That's often also the problem for learning a new language. Just as it's really hard to work out when you're picking up a new language and you have to split two phonemes into two, it's really hard to take two phonemes you have from your native language, and put them into the same category in your second language.

Let's consider Quebec French here. This dialect of French has some variation in how you find /i/, the "ee" sound from beat in English. When you put the sound at the end of a syllable, it stays as [i], like in petit, [pətsi], or small if it's masculine. But when there's a consonant that comes afterwards, you get it showing up at [ɪ], the "ih" sound you get in bit. That's like in petite [pətsɪt], or small if it's feminine.

Now, as we see from beat and bit in English, that's a minimal pair: only one sound changes, and they have different meanings. So we know that they're phonemes. But for Quebec French, now you have to stick them back in the same box. There's not a lot of research on acquisition of allophones like this in the L2, but one recent study conducted at the University of Ottawa suggests that English learners of French not only fail to reliably produce this, they don't even notice there's a change happening until you point it out. What we actually perceive and what we don't has a lot of power over how we can learn new languages, and this is just one more way!



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about phonemes, allophones, phonology, and differences between sounds in different languages. Or about brains and reactions to sounds, too! There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you.

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Now You Hear It, Now You Don't, Part 1: Phonemes                                                                                          Double the Languages, Double the Fun