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Phoneme theory

In human language, a phoneme is the theoretical representation of a sound. It is a sound of language represented (or imagined) without reference to its position in a word or a phrase. A phoneme, therefore, is the conception of a sound in the most neutral form possible and distinguishes between different words or morphemes. Changing an element of a word from one phoneme another produces either a different word or obvious nonsense.

The phoneme can be defined as “ the smallest meaningful physiological unit of sound”.

The phoneme has mental, physiological, and physical substance: our brain process the sounds; the sounds are produced by the human speech organs; and the sounds are physical entities that can be recorded and measured. For an example of phonemes, consider the English words pat and sat, which appear to differ only in their initial consonants. This difference, known as contractiveness or opposition, is sufficient to distinguish these words, and therefore the P and S sounds are said to be different phonemes in English. A pair of words that are identical except for such a sound are known as a minimal pair; this is the most frequent demonstration that two sounds are separate phonemes.

A phoneme could be thought of as a family related phones, called allophones, that the speakers of a language think of, and hear or see, as being categorically the same and differing only in the phonetic environment in which they occur. In sign languages, the basic movements were formerly called cheremes (or cheiremes), but usage changed to phoneme when it was recognized that the mental abstractions involved are essentially the same as in oral languages. A phonemically “perfect” alphabet is one that has a single symbol for each phoneme.

There are different opinions on the nature of the phoneme and its definitions.

1. I.A. Baudouin de Courtney (1845-1929) defined the phoneme as a physical image of a sound. He originated the so called “mentalist” view of the phoneme theory.

2. The abstractional conception of the phoneme was originated by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1930), the famous Swiss linguist and the Danish linguist L. Hjelmslev (1889-1965). The “abstract” view regards the phoneme independent of the phonetic properties.

3. S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), L.Bloomfield (1887-1949), R. Jakobson (1896-1982) viewed the phoneme as the minimal sound units by which meanings may be differentiated. They stated that the features of the phoneme involved in the differentiation of words are called distinctive. They can be found in contrastive sets.

4. The physical view on the phone was originated by D.Jones (1881-1967). He defined the phoneme as a “family” of sounds. The members of the family show phonetic similarity.

This view was shared by the American scientists B.Bloch and T.Trager. They define the phoneme as a class of phonetically similar sounds, contrasting and mutually exclusive with all similar sounds, contrasting and mutually exclusive with all similar classes in the language.

5. The problem of the phoneme can be solved on a “populational basis” (J.A Perry, 1974), that is on the definition of the phoneme as a unit of an idiolect (D.Jones, K.Pike) a dialect (L.Bloomfield), a multidialect- the phoneme is a unit of the English language as a whole (G.Trager, H.Smith), or a “supralect”- the phoneme is a unit of a standard form by which the dialects and idiolects may be compared. (J.A.Perry).

6. L.V.Shcherba (1880-1944) was the first to define the phoneme as a real, independent distinctive unit which manifests itself in the form of allophones. Prof. V.A Vassilyev developed Shcherba’s theory and presented a detailed definition of the phoneme. He writes that a phoneme is a dialectical unity of three aspects:

1. material, real and objective:

2. abstractional and generalized:

3. functional.

It serves to perform the following functions: a) constitutive, b) distinctive,

d) recognitive.

V.A. Vassilyev states that phoneme is material and objective because it really exists in the material form of speech sounds, allophones. It is an objective reality, existing independently from our will, or intention. It is an abstraction, because we make it abstract from concrete realizations for classificatory purposes, it functions to make one word or its grammatical form distinct from the other, it constitutes words and helps to recognize them.

The actual speech sounds pronounced by the speaker or reader are variants, or allophones, of phonemes. Speech sounds which have one or more articulator and therefore acoustic, features in common and at the same time differ from each other in some degree are said to belong to one and the same phoneme, i.e. are variants of one and he same phoneme.

Since every phoneme has several variants, the need arises for their classification. Besides free variants, the following types of allophones are distinguished, although the definition of certain types is rather vague and it is not always clear to which of types certain allophones should be assigned. First, allophones are divided into: principal, or typical, and subsidiary ones. It is necessary to find objective criteria, the application of which by different people would yield the same results. Two such objective criteria may be suggested: (1) the principal or typical variant of the phoneme is free from the influence of neighbouring speech sounds and other purely phonetic factos, such as absence of stress; (2) it is most representative of the phoneme as a whole, in the sense that has the greatest number of articulatory features among all the variants of the phoneme.

The subsidiary variants of a phoneme are subdivided into two groups: (1) combinatory and (2) positional. The boundary line between this two classes is, however, not at all clear-cut.

Combinatory allophones are those which are clearly due to the influence of neighbouring speech sounds (assimilation, adaptation and accommodation) and to the specific way in which adjacent sounds are joined together.

Positional allophones are those which are used in definite positions traditionally, according to the orthoepic norms of the language.

The articulatory features which form the invariant of the phoneme are called distinctive or relevant. To extract relevant feature of the phoneme we have to oppose it to some other phoneme in the same phonetic context.

If the opposed sounds differ in one articulatory feature and this difference brings about changes in the meaning of the words the contrasting are called relevant. For example: the words port and court differ in one consonant only, that is the word port has the initial consonant [p], and the word court begins with [k]. Both sounds are occlusive and fortis, the only difference being that [p] is labial and [k] is back lingual. Therefore is possible to say that labial and back lingual articulators are relevant in the system of English consonants.

The articulatory features which do not serve to distinguish meaning are called non-distinctive, irrelevant, or redundant; for instance, it is impossible in English to oppose an aspirated [p] to a non-aspirated one in the same phonetic context to distinguish meanings. That is why aspiration is non-distinctive feature of English consonants. As it has been mentioned above any change in the invariant of the phoneme affects the meaning. Anyone, who studies a foreign language makes mistakes in the articulation of particular sounds, L.V. Shcherba classifies the pronunciation errors as phonological and phonetic.


Questions for discussion:

5. Phonology as a science

6. Phonology schools

7. Definition of the phoneme

8. Variants o the phoneme (allophones)


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Phonology as a science | Lecture 5

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