Phonemes and Allophones, Part 1

Phonemes and Allophones, Part 1


So let’s talk about differences. Some things are easy to tell apart, like chocolate and broccoli. Others can be hard to differentiate,
like violet and indigo. But when it comes to the sounds of language, what you notice
and what you don’t is a matter of what you already know. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this
is the Ling Space. Every sound that gets used in language is
made by moving air through some combination of your mouth, nose and throat.
This is what’s known as the vocal tract. When you move your tongue and lips to make a particular sound, that changes the shape of the vocal tract, and in turn, that changes the properties of whatever sound you’re going to make. So for example, the difference between a [p] and a [t], which are both sounds where no air can escape the mouth, is that in one,
you close your lips, like [p], and in the other, you move your tongue to the alveolar ridge, that raised area right behind your top front teeth, like [t]. So we make different language sounds by having variation in the way we shape our vocal tracts. But how much variation is enough to make a real difference in what we hear? How far do we have to move our tongues around before we get to a new sound of our language, that’s totally different from any other sound? It
turns out there’s no universal answer to that question. There’s no target inside
your mouth that says “This far! No farther! Or you’ll be a different sound!” The inside
of your mouth is a continuous space – there’s no actual dividing line between the different
areas, no special gap or marker saying “NOW YOU ARE IN THE ALVEOLAR ZONE”. Every language in the world has to come to
its own conclusions about how it can divide up the different ways we can shape the mouth. Every learner, every speaker, needs to know what those meaningful differences are. Those basic sounds a language has, those ones where if you swap one for another, you really notice something has changed? Those sounds are known as phonemes, and knowing what your language’s phonemes are is an essential part of knowing that language. Phonemes are what you use to build words; if you change a phoneme, you get a different word. And I really mean that literally – the simplest way that linguists test whether a pair of sounds are phonemes in a language or not is to see if switching them – and only them – changes the meaning of the entire word.
Any pair of words that differ in only one sound, but have their meaning change, is known as a minimal pair. If you can find a minimal pair, then both of the sounds that got swapped have to be phonemes. Let’s look at some examples. Take the two
words [blu] and [glu]. Blue glue, right? The only thing that’s different about them is
that first sound; one starts with a [b] and the other starts with a [g], but the rest of the sounds are the same. That one change causes the meaning of the whole word to change!
Blue and glue are a minimal pair; moving [b] to [g] makes a meaningful difference. And
that means that /b/ and /g/ must be different phonemes in English. And we can do this with any pair of sounds in English – those sounds can be at the beginning, like blue and glue; at the end, like cheek
and cheat; or in the middle like beat and bit. Those minimal pairs show us that /b/
and /g/, /k/ and /t/, and /i/ and /ɪ/ are all different phonemes in English. And you could go through and find pairs like this for all the basic sounds of English. But like I said before, every language comes up with its own set of phonemes. So that means that some things that are different in one
language may be part of the same phoneme in another language. So, take [i] and [ɪ]. As
we just saw, those are different phonemes in English; we know this because we have the minimal pair [bit] and [bɪt]. But if you’re a Turkish or a Spanish speaker, those two sounds are part of the same vowel phoneme – the space in your mouth where you can make that [i]-ish sound is just bigger, rather than being cut into two. So to them, [bit] and [bɪt] sound pretty
much the same. It’s similar for a pair of consonants like [l] and [ɹ]; English might
have a minimal pair like [lej] and [ɹej], but Japanese only has one sound like that, like [ɾej]. This is part of why people speaking a language other than their native tongue often sound like they have some kind of foreign accent. They’re using their phonemic inventory and applying it to a language with a different one! And, lest you think English is special, it’s
not. Other languages carve up the sound spectrum in a way English doesn’t. So if you’re
a French speaker, there’s a difference between [u] and [y], like in the minimal pair [vu]
and [vy], which mean you and sight. If you’re an Arabic speaker, there’s a difference between [q] and [k], like in [qalbi] and [kalbi], which are my heart and my dog. English speakers probably had a lot of difficulty telling the difference between those. Now this makes a lot of sense – we don’t make sounds the same way every time. Our tongues hit slightly different points, our mouths close slightly differently…
any number of factors could be different. If we had to pay attention to every single
detail of every phoneme, we’d never have any time to pay attention to what anyone was saying. It’d be all, “hey, you just said ‘NERV,’ but the last time, you said ‘NERF’ (with
a slightly less heavy v), and was that important? Oh man, was that important?” No. This way, you know what’s important, and it’s only the sounds that change meanings. There’s a lot of research out there that
shows that we can’t really tell the difference between two sounds that aren’t phonemes in our language. For example, a 2000 study examined responses in the brain to two different syllables, [ta] and [da]. Now, these sounds ranged between [t] and [d] at set intervals. There’s a boundary in how we perceive [t] and [d] – if the vocal folds vibrate later, that’s a
[t], and if they vibrate earlier, that’s a [d]. English learners notice changes in
how long it takes for that vibration to start only if they cross over that boundary
– if it moved the sound from a [t] to a [d], or vice versa. But if it varies a bunch
without crossing the boundary, if it stays in [t]-land or [d]-opolis? English learners
don’t care. Even their brains don’t care. Or how about this: French doesn’t have an
[h] sound, so it’s really hard for a French speaker to hear when there’s an [h] in English. A 2011 neurolinguistic study found that English speakers really boggle when they hear the last word
in a sentence like “The mechanic filled the tire with hair.” It’s just not right.
But French speakers don’t care – to them, it still sounds like the tire got filled with
air. Nothing more normal than that! So their brains just process it normally. One last case about what variation we can
hear: let’s think about the sentence “Let’s scoop this goop.” Or in particular, let’s
focus on “scoop” and “goop.” If you’re an English speaker, that [k] and [g] sound
different, right? Except… they’re not. That last pair was exactly the same, except
for the [s] at the beginning. Listen again: “goop” and “goop.” But /k/ and /g/
are phonemes in English, right? So we should be able to hear the difference between them
there. That’s what phonemes are, right? So how can that work? That’s the work of allophones and variation
that’s driven by rules, which will be our topic for next week’s video. Cliffhanger! That’s right, we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. For now, though, if you could hear the difference between my phonemes, you learned that speech sounds are made by changing the shape of our vocal tracts; that there are no universal differences between one sound and its neighbour; that phonemes are what we build words from, because they make meaningful differences; that every language comes up with its own set of phonemes, and that we can use minimal pairs to figure them out; and that we can only hear the differences between sounds that are phonemic in our language. The Ling Space is written and produced by
me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, our production assistant is Georges
Coulombe, and music and sound design is by Shane Turner. Our educational consultants
are Level-Up Learning Solutions, and our graphics team is AtelierMuse. We’re down in the comments
below, or you can bring the discussion over to our website, where we have some extra material
on this topic. Check us out on Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding
your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Go dté
tú slán!

Danny Hutson

37 thoughts on “Phonemes and Allophones, Part 1

  1. This lesson on the fundamental sounds that make up languages and how they vary from language to language made good use of audio and video, I could follow it a lot better than I could without the audio examples.

    One thing I was left wondering: was whether the number phonemes varies much from language to language?

  2. I have two questions: 1 is, in tonal languages, does the same sound but with a different tone count as a new phoneme, since it can make up a minimal pair?  I had a friend taking basic Thai, and he was freaked out because the word for horse and mother in law sound exactly the same but in a different tone.  The second question is based in my work as an ed therapist working with kids with dyslexia and poor phonemic awareness.  I have noticed that some things that they have trouble differentiating are not differentiated in other languages-for instance the l and r you mentioned.  They are very different in English, but not in Japanes, but for a lot of my kiddos, when they are in a beginning blend, they tend to flip them.  Any idea why (other than possible Japanese past lives;)

  3. I love these vids! You are so helpful! I don't understand anything in my linguistics class. These videos are really helping.  Thank you so much

  4. Moti! I don't know if you remember me but I was in your Phonetics class last year at Concordia.I didn't know you had a channel! Hope all is well 🙂 
    Anastasia P

  5. @Anastasia Provias Yep, I remember you! And the channel's going well. Thanks! Hope you find some of the videos here useful, and that you're having a good term. ^_^

  6. I just love your Youtube Channel. In a week I'm going to take an important exam on linguistics and methodology of language teaching, and I'm watching your videos to revise a few linguistic notions, it's really helpful. I've also noticed that you lived in Montreal – I'm going to move to that city in 3 weeks 🙂 Greetings!

  7. I heard the difference between scoop and goop… Maybe because I'm Multilingual, English, Norwegian, Danish, German and Swedish(I also speak the dialect with the most vowels and phonemes and diphthongs.) But anyway it's a really nice video anyway, I mean most people wouldn't pick up on the minute differences in your scoop and goop. Hadn't it been that I like language videos and like playing with sounds when I'm bored and speaking 5 languages it would been a different story I guess. I should learn Dutch next. Sure I'm literally the worst in the world at speaking German because their grammar is stupid, but at least it's closer to Swedish than English which is only closer grammatically to Swedish.

  8. "There is no marker in your mouth that says 'now you are in the alveolar zone' "… except of course for the hard palate. That might not have been the best example. Figuring out exactly where the hard palate ends and where the teeth and soft palate begin, that can be a little ambiguous, but the alveolar ridge isn't some abstract concept, it's an unmistakable feature of the mouth's geometry.

  9. Thank you for the video you share with us. What software did you use for visual effects of the video? i mean for the subtitles and texts on the screen.

  10. I`m from Argentina and I have started a english course and I think that the phonemes is the most important part of the english language because if you don`t express correctly the meanings of the words can change. (sorry if i didn`t write correctly but i`m a rookie yet)

  11. 6:40 In this paper I copyeditted the French author consistently misspelled "Helmholtz" as "Helmoltz". it makes sense now as to why.

  12. Your videos are amazing! I have a question, You said that our brains don't get the differences between these phonemes we don't have in our language, Is that's why I don't hear the difference between [ш] and [щ] In Russian? I just want to make sure that I understand this part.

  13. Thanks for the helpful video! I just have a question:
    I usually see the word "time" written as /taɪm/ in the IPA. However many people write it like /tajm/. Well, "time" is one syllable but I think you can pronounce two vowels in one syllable, so is the broad transcription [taɪ̯m]? Let me give another example; take a look at the French name "Camille". It's pronounced /kaˈmij/. The /j/ sound doesn't sound the same in English /tajm/ or /lej/ (—> I think it was an example in the video). I know it's a semivowel and semivowels are pretty hard to understand, because they're neither consonants nor vowels, but could you tell me if /j/ is indeed used instead of /ɪ/ in English vowel diphthongs that have this kind of gliding? Thanks

  14. +The Ling Space

    Are leg and egg considered a minimal pair or something else? Unlike your examples, egg doesn't have a different phoneme in place of the 'L', it has none :O

  15. Hi~thanks your YouTube channel. It helped me a lot!:) I have a question about English pronunciations. I am Korean, so whenever I heard very diverse English pronunciations from many countries(even it's the same word), I felt like that word sounds like totally different word from what I know. Like me who is not real native english speaker, how I can get it? Everyone has their own free variations about english. T.T

  16. pleeeease need your help! what are the steps in making a phonemic statement of a certain sounds?? knowing that we have a data to work on…?

  17. At 3:57 it sounds like he says "bitch" lo. … or maybe it only sounds like that to me because I have a different phonology? hm..

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