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Knowing Your Allophones

2017/09/05

Knowing Your Allophones

In the study of phonology, the sounds of languages are analyzed as "phonemes". Phonemes are a set of sounds deemed to be part of a particular language by its native speakers. For example, in Japanese there are 5 vowels, 14 consonants (with voiced/unvoiced distinctions) and a nazal "ŋ". These are the phonemes recognized by Japanese speakers, described in dictionaries and commentaries, and taught in schools and language schools. Similarly the English phonemes are also determined by the English Phonetic Alphabet, having 7 short vowels, 5 long vowels, 8 diphthongs (vowels with 2 or more sounds), and 24 consonants.

The function of a phoneme is to distinguish meaning. Changing one phoneme in a word will give a different meaning. In Japanese, "haru" (spring), "saru" (monkey), "maru" (circle) all mean different things. Likewise in English, "play" "clay", and "slay" mean different things, with one phoneme change.

Sounds simple! Not quite. Phonemes aren't always pronounced the same way. Take, for example, the Japanese "ŋ" sounds, transcribed as . Before sounds /k/[i] or /g/ it is pronounced like an English "ng" (e.g. "manga", "hanko"), but before /m/, /b/, and /p/ it turns into an [m] sound as in "kombu" (type of seaweed) and "sampo" (going for a walk). This is why you will see a variation in spelling for place names like "Honmachi/Hommachi".

These sound variations of the same phoneme are called "allophones". Allophones simply occur as natural articulations and have no bearing on the change of meaning.[ii] In the example of the "ŋ" sound in Japanese, it is simply how the mouth works when pronouncing it, and the same case can be made for the English sound /n/. Try and be conscious when articulating the words, "think", "bend" and "tenth" and you will notice that your tongue is positioned differently with all three words when pronouncing the /n/. One marked feature of allophones is that native speakers usually do not notice it unless trained to do so.

But there are different types of allophones. It is important not only to understand the mechanisms for allophones but also the different types so teachers can help second language learners to develop a native-like pronunciation. Let's call the above allophone involving /ŋ/ and /n/ "Type 1". These are allophones that occur naturally in any language, and it would be ridiculous to try and pronounce these in exactly the same manner. You could call them "universal allophones" if you'd like. These do not need to be taught.

The second type of allophones (Let's call these "Type 2") need to be taught explicitly. These are unique to certain languages. Like Type 1, these allophones also developed due to natural tendencies in using your mouth to pronounce words, but are developed over a much longer history in that language. The easiest example in Japanese is the "s" sounds and "t" sounds in Japanese. The syllable table in Japanese give "sa, shi, su, se so" and "ta, chi, tsu, te, to". To a native speaker, the consonants are obviously inconsistent. But remarkably, most Japanese people think they are pronouncing the same "s" and "t" for all 5 vowels. That is why many people will write "si" or "ti" for their names and pronounce it as [shi] and [chi].

Type 2 allophones are easily noticed by non-native speakers, but less so by native speakers. But with training, native speakers can notice the different sounds. This is important, because the [s] and [sh], or [t] and [ch] sounds are not allophones but different phonemes in English. "Tip" does not mean the same thing as "chip" and "sit" does not mean the same thing as... ok, you get it.

Until a Japanese speaker is freed from this "allophonic prison" he or she will not be able to distinguish between different phonemes in English. This is not exactly the same as acquiring new sounds, like /r/ or /th/ that don't exist in their language. The sounds [s] and [sh] both exist in Japanese, but in constrained environments. Freeing learners from this allophonic prison means enabling them to use these sounds freely in any environment. They need to learn that /s/, /sh/, /t/ and /ch/ can be used before any vowel in English.

Of course there are Type 2 allophones in English too. The regular past tense of verbs, formed by adding "d" or "ed" are pronounced differently depending on the preceding sound. It is pronounced as /t/ after unvoiced consonants (except /t/), /d/ after voiced consonants (except /t/) or vowels, and /id/ after /t/ and /d/ sounds.[iii]

Some examples:

/t/ worked, passed, laughed, helped, pushed, watched

/d/ robbed, harmed, fooled, rigged, paused, breathed, edged, lied, banged, conned, carved

/id/ batted, added

Similarly, the word "have" changes the /v/ to an /f/ when followed by unvoiced consonants as in "have to" or "have played".

Another type of allophone, which could be called Type 3, concerns certain dialects. In most varieties of American English, the /t/ for water is pronounced like a [d]. It's not that they consider this as a /d/ sound but, sandwiched between two vowels, Americans tend to turn the unvoiced [t] into its voiced counterpart [d]. Native speakers in other areas don't seem to have any objection to pronouncing the [t] as it is. Second language learners need not spend too much time on these, but it can be helpful to learn some common dialectal differences. Perhaps this can be taught as "dialects" or "accents" without even bringing up "allophones".

One thing to remember when teaching pronunciation, especially to Japanese speakers, is that the Japanese language is based on syllables rather than sounds. This means that Japanese people generally aren't aware of "sounds" as English speakers are. To them, a "sound" means a syllable as in "ka", "mo", or "yu". So it is imperative that they are introduced to the concept of sounds over syllables early on (more so for adult speakers), where vowels and consonants are separated and each treated as individual sounds.[iv]



[i] The / / marks are used to mark phonemes, whereas [ ] marks the actually articulation of sound, taking allophones into account.

[ii] In the study of historical (diachronic) linguistics it is noted that allophonic variations can develop into full phonemic distinctions over time, often due to contact with non-native speakers who point out the differences or by importing loan words from other languages.

[iii] It is arguable whether one could call these "allophones" as these are now recognized by English speakers and the phonemic markers are distinguished. But I have included it in here as I have seen English learning materials that fail to make these distinctions as well as English teachers who are unaware of it.

[iv] There are actually two sounds that in English that are generally taught as 1 sound: /kw/ and /ks/, when transcribed with letters "qu" or "x".

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