The /t/ Phoneme and its Allophones

January 6th, 2021 by

When we hear /t/, we could be hearing sounds that are quite different. In English, the differences do not change the meaning of the words the way the difference between ‘b’ and ‘p’ would change the meaning of the words. In some languages, the same differences would change the meaning of the words.

This will be a chance to look at one phoneme and its associated allophones carefully and learn a few of the symbols of the IPA.

Consider the following four words:

  1. Ted
  2. Steady
  3. Water
  4. Kitten

Clearly, each of them has the letter ‘t’ and the sound ‘t.’  You can guess, that though they appear to be the same sound, they aren’t. Here’s how they are represented in the IPA.

  1. [tʰɛd]
  2. [stɛdi]
  3. [wɑɾɚ]
  4. [kɪɾʔn̩]

The symbols are mysterious, at this point, but I am going to go over them. 

First off, some of them are ones you know. ‘d,’ ‘s,’ ‘w,’ ‘k,’ and ‘n.’ are pretty much the way expect them to be. Vowels, the subject of the next section, are tricky because there are far more vowels in English than there are letters to represent them.  In these 4 words, there are 5 of them (6, if you count, ‘r’ … I’ll get to that). 

The symbol [ɛ] is the Greek letter Epsilon and is the ‘e’ sound in “bed.”  So, if you forget about the weird ‘h’ superscript, you can see how [tʰɛd] would sound like “ted.”

The lower case ‘I’ is the sound ‘ee’ as in “bee,” so it is easy to see why [stɛdi] would sound like “steady.” Using ‘I’ for an ‘ee’ sound is common in many languages in the world.

The symbol [ɑ], is the Greek letter Alpha, and is the ‘a’ sound in “father.” The symbol at the end of “water” stands for “r.” ‘R’ is a complicated sound and there is a whole subsection on it coming up, but it can act as a vowel, and that’s what it’s doing here. For now, just realize that is the sound like the ‘r’ in “bird” or at the end of “water,” approximately, ‘err.”

The tricky part of the word “water” is the ‘t,’ which is not a ‘t’ sound by a sound called an alveolar-flap.  I will get into this more in the section on consonants, but the sound is made by quickly flapping your tongue to the roof of you mouth just behind your teeth. The symbol for it looks like a lower-case ‘r,’ but it is smooth and does not have a column on the left [ɾ].  The next word, “kitten” uses the same sound. It can sound closer to a ‘d’ than to a ‘t.’

This is the same sound in the Spanish word “pero” (“but”) and the English words, “latter” and “ladder.”

The small capital ‘I’ [ɪ], is the ‘I’ sound in “bit” and “kit.” However, in the word “kitten” there is no [t]. It is [kɪɾ], followed by [ʔn̩]. You have seen the [ɾ], but the [ʔn̩] is mysterious.

[ʔ] is called a “glottal stop.” It a consonant that is made by stopping the air with your throat (see the drawing in the section on Consonants). It is a common sound in English, but it usually does not change the meaning.  Say “kitten” and feel how your throat closes just before the ‘n.’

One more thing about this word is the ‘n.’  Notice that there is a dot underneath it. This is a notation that means “the n is a vowel in this circumstance.” We will look into this in detail in the section on Sonorants coming up, but just be aware that that’s a possibility.

The last thing in this analysis is the ‘h’ superscript that I deferred above.

That refers to what is called aspiration which means that a little puff of air comes out after the consonant.  Whether the puff of air comes out does not change the meaning of the word, that’s why ‘t’ with a puff of air and ‘t’ without a puff of air are both allophones of /t/. They are variations of the same phoneme.

You can test this for yourself by putting your hand right in front of your mouth and saying “ted.” You will feel a puff of air.  Then say “steady” and you will not feel one.  You can make a puff of air when you say “steady” and it will not change the meaning of the word. However in some languages, like Chinese, Thai, Hindi, and many others, aspirated and unaspirated consonants are different phonemes and change the meaning, so, if they had the words [tɛd] and [tʰɛd], they would mean different things. [t] and [tʰ] would not be allophones, but different phonemes.

The next sections expand on the idea of contrasting sounds, go through the categories of sounds, list the allophones of the consonant phonemes, and then explore syllables, stress, words, phrases, sentence, and interactive speech, starting with vowels.

Distinctive Sounds – Phonemes

January 6th, 2021 by

What makes two words different from each other? 

It’s obvious, they have different sounds.  “Bat,” is a different word than “pat” because ‘b’ /b/  is a different sound that ‘p’ /p/.  “Pin” is a different word than “pen” because ‘I’ /ɪ/ and ‘e’ /ɛ/ represent different sounds.

The sounds that change the meaning of a word are called phonemes.  The exact physical sound will not be the same between two people, or even exactly the same each time a person says it, but we recognize sounds that change the meaning of words. Our perception of the sound is the result of neurological processes that take in context,  the speaker’s face, and other elements that form our perception of what we hear.   The strongest influence is what we expect to hear. 

Of all the possible sounds a human can make, every language uses a subset.  Babies go through a “babbling period” where they play with their vocal tract and make a wide range of sounds.  Rapidly, they favor the sounds they hear from people around them.  This vowel chart is an outline of the possible vowels, and this consonant chart is an outline of the possible consonants.  I call it an “outline” because there is considerable variation for each vowel or consonant.  Within a language, it is common for speakers not to notice the variations.  These variations are called, allophones, and I discuss this in more detail, but we can discuss this briefly with two examples. 

First off, consider the two words “pin” /pɪn/ and “spin” /spɪn/.  We form “spin” by adding an ‘s’ sound to the beginning of “pin,” right? 

Sort of.  The two ‘p’s are not the same.   If I write them more accurately, I will write them as [pʰɪn] and [spɪn].  Notice the little ‘h’ after the ”p’ in “pin.”  That refers to a little puff of air, called aspiration, that is released after the ‘p’ sound.  You can test this.  Put your hand right in front of your mouth and say, “pin” and you will feel a puff of air.  Say, “spin” and there is no puff of air after the ‘p.’  If you force a puff or air after the ‘p’ in “spin,” it will sound a bit weird, but it does not change the meaning of the word. 

In Mandrin Chinese (and many other languages) /p/ and /pʰ/ are as different as /b/ and /p/ are in English. They are separate phonemes, where in English, [p] and [pʰ] are different allophones of the same phoneme, /p/. 

Usually, the variations are entirely precicitibale.  The anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, once said that “information is differences that make a difference.” 

Part of the job of a linguist can be to identify the distinct sounds in a language. The science of doing this is called phonology. This is a matter of identifying the abstract sounds that change the meaning and the allophones of the phonemes.  

Other Morphemes

November 4th, 2020 by

The morphemes we have looked at so far are called bound morphemes because they have to be bound to a word.  Other bound morphenes are ‘-ing’ and a plethora of prefixes, ‘in-,’ ‘im-,’ ‘un-,’ ‘extra-,’ ‘non-,’ and so that change the meaning of the word they are attached to.  “Credible” becomes “incredible,” “possible” becomes “impossible,” “likely” becomes “unlikely,” “special” becomes “extraspecial,” and “conforming” becomes “nonconforming.”

The words to which they are attached can be morphemes themselves or consist of other morphemes. “Possible” is a morpheme because you can’t break it down further.  However, “likely” consists of “like” and “-ly,” turing the original word into an adverb. “Conforming” is “conform” with an added “-ing.”

In most cases, there is no reason to break the words down in to morphemes. It is useful with “add an ‘s’” because, psychologically, the sound(s) have a meaning to us. We will see how the surrounding sounds influence the phoneme that is used for the plural morpheme and the third person singular.

Now we will learn the tools we need to understand how sounds are made and how they influence each other.

Simple Past “-ed” Morpheme

November 4th, 2020 by

Just as you “add an ‘s’” to form the plural and third person singular, you “add an ‘-ed’” to form the simple past So,

  1. “hate” => “hated”
  2. “love” => “loved”
  3. “walk” => “walked”
  4. “send” => “sent”

As with adding an ‘s,’ if you listen we are not adding the same sound.  “Hate” becomes ‘hate’ – [ə] – ‘d,’ “love” becomes ‘love’ – ‘d,’ and “walk” becomes ‘walk’ – ‘t.’

It’s easy enough to hear the ‘t’ in #4, because it is reflected in the spelling.  But, the vowel sound changes too, so at first hearing it might seem like and irregular verb, but it’s not. The change is entirely predictable

As with the “add an s” morpheme, native speakers of English don’t even hear that they are different sounds, they hear that the word is being changed into the simple past tense.

Words and Morphemes

November 4th, 2020 by


Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in speech. The word “love” is a morpheme. To that morpheme, another morpheme, “-ing” can be added forming “loving,” a different word. To that, “-ly” can be added forming “lovingly,” still another word.  

They are not the same as syllables.  Syllables break up the speech into rhythmic units.  It is possible for a morpheme to have more than one syllable, as in “rhinoceros” /raɪ nɑs ɚ əs/ which is a single morpheme that has four syllables; and it is possible for a syllable to have more than one morpheme, as in “walked” /wɑkt/, which has the verb “walk” and the morpheme “-ed” reduced to ‘t.’

Morphemes that can stand on their own, such as “cat” are called free morphemes, and ones that need to be stuck to another morpheme such as “-ing” are called bound morphemes.  Morphemes can be bound to either the beginning or the end of a word.  We saw “-ed” and “-ing,” above, two morphemes that are bound to the end of words.  Some morphemes that are bound to the beginning are: “in” (visible/invisible), “inter-” (active/interactive), and “non” (issue/nonissue).  A complete list of English prefix morphemes can be found here. Sometimes two free morphemes are stuck together, and in “bookseller,” “bootblack,” or “football.”


Plural and Third Person Singular Morphemes

November 4th, 2020 by

If I ask you right now, “how do you from a plural in English?” You’re first thought will be, “this much be a trick question.”

That’s because there are a few words in English, like “ox” that form a plural in odd ways. The plural of “ox” is “oxen.”  I am not trying to trick you, though, so, if I ask, how do you form the plural of a brand-new word in English, say ‘blort?” you would most probably answer “add an ‘s,’” which would be correct.  Sort of.  The plural of ‘blort’ would be ‘blorts.”

But, what about the word, “blord?” Of course, we would do the same, the plural would be “blords,’ when we spell it, but not when we say it.  Let’s listen to two familiar words first, then get back to blort, and blord.  Consider the words, “cat” and “dog.”  The plural of “cat” is “cats” and the plural of “dog” is “dogs,” when you write them, but when you say them, the plural of “cat” is “cats” and the plural of “dog” is “dogz.”

I often hear people that are learning English say “dogs” instead of “dogz.” English speaker might have gone their whole life and never noticed that they were using different sounds. In both cases they are adding an abstract sound that mades the nouns plural, and we call that abstract sound the plural morpheme.

The plural morpheme has another form.  When a word ends with an ‘s’ or ‘z’ sound, there needs to be a short ‘uh’ sound between the ‘s’ or ‘z’ and the ‘z’ sound. An example is  the word “kiss.” The plurals is “kisses” and if you say it out loud it sounds like ‘kiss-UH-z.’  The ‘uh’ sound is the most common sound in English. It’s called a schwa and we will be seeing it a lot. The IPA symbol we use to represent it is looks like an upsidedown ‘e’ [ə]. 

In English, the third person singlular is formed the same way as the plural, by “adding an ‘s.’” The same sound patterns apply.

The patterns are completely predictable and native speakers usually don’t even hear the difference unless it is pointed out.  The sounds they hear added change the meaning of the word to which they are added to a plural, or to a third person singular.

After we have learned a bit more about sounds, I will teach you what the sound patterns are.