English Sounds in Context: The Pronunciation of Phonemes and Morphemes

English Sounds in Context: The Pronunciation of Phonemes and Morphemes

Caroline Wiltshire (University of Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch013
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The chapter takes the reader from the concrete phonetic descriptions of sounds, found in Chapters 11 and 12, to the use of these sounds in English. As in every language, sounds are influenced by their context. A large part of phonological description of a language is an effort to describe how the “same” sound is pronounced differently in different contexts, both phonetic and morphological. The chapter provides the phonemes of English, which are the distinctive units of sound, and examples of how they vary in context. It also illustrates the variation of English morphemes in context, by providing examples of allomorphy. Some implications of variation in context for teaching English are discussed.
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Contrast In English Sounds

Increased phonetic sophistication has allowed us to distinguish a vast variety of phonetic sounds used in English. However, not all of these phonetic sounds and distinctions do equal work in English, or in any language. Phonology begins with the study of which sounds are capable of making a meaningful difference between words, and organizing these sounds into distinct phonemes. The idea goes back to Saussure (1916/1959), who argued that the role of sounds in language is to make contrasts among words: “Phonemes are characterized…simply by the fact that they are distinct” (p. 119). Changing one phoneme changes the meaning of a word; for example, the words pat and bat are identical except for the initial sounds, which are therefore responsible for indicating the difference in meaning between the two words. Such pairs of words are called “minimal pairs”: words that differ in only a single sound but differ in meaning. Thus the definition of the phoneme, as in Swadesh (1934, p. 117) is based on its ability to distinguish meaning in minimal pairs: “the phoneme is the smallest potential unit of difference between similar words recognizable as different to the native [speaker]”. Some examples are provided in (1), following the convention that phonemes are provided inside slanted brackets / /, while the phonetics are provided in square brackets [ ]. The appearance of special phonetic diacritics, such as [ ͪ ̃ ̆ ] will be explained shortly; none of them is responsible for a contrast in English.

  • (1)

    Some minimal pairs and phonemes of English

    • 978-1-5225-8467-4.ch013.g01

Note that both vowels, such as /ɪ, ʊ, æ, ɛ/, and consonants, such as /p, b, m, n/, are phonemes, and furthermore, that a contrast between two words in a minimal pair can be made by the sounds at the beginning (could vs. good), end (sun vs. sum) or middle of a word (pit vs. put); all are equally valid as proof of the phoneme’s ability to make a difference between words. Finally, note too that spelling, particularly English spelling, does not always correctly reflect the contrast in sound (as in hiss vs. his), so minimal pairs are based upon the phonetic transcription rather than the spelling.

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