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View Diary: The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed (15 comments)

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  •  allophones are members of the same class (2+ / 0-)
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    Noisy Democrat, PeterHug

    You write:

    "There are allophonic variations of [i] but they're kind of tricky to nail down"
    Indeed they are. Because the variants for [i] articulation are all members of the same class of speech sounds for English speakers, meaning that they are not phonemically distinct from one another, speakers can ignore the differences between them because those differences do not affect meaning. Part of what it means to be proficient is understanding which distinctions you have to pay attention to and which ones to ignore.

    And yes, those slight differences that speakers can ignore with no risk of misunderstanding are allophones, but I don't see why you need that term to understand the concept. The [t] examples you cite are how I learned about allophones in the first place, back when I was an undergrad, but since native speakers of English spend their whole lives ignoring the distinctions between them (e.g., the difference between, say, an aspirated [t] and an unaspirated [t] is of no consequence to us native speakers), I don't find them particularly helpful for students who are grappling with the basic concept of the phoneme. The foreign-language examples I refer to in the diary seem to work a lot better for the students to illustrate the "pay attention to this" and "ignore that" characteristics that help to define the concept of the phoneme, while also illustrating that our distinctions between sounds and how we categorize what constitutes the "same" sound vs. "different" sounds is not at all objective, as evidenced by the variation in what is considered the "same" or "different" across languages.

    Later in the semester, when we talk about things like phonemic splits, i.e. when allophones diverge to the point where the pronunciation differences end up resulting in a difference in meaning depending on which sound is articulated (as in the historical phonemic splits of Germanic k and g, or what may be an eventual split of [æ] articulations in American English, given their historical instability and high salience of pronunciation differences even to native speakers), we can look at specific examples of members of the same class (as [i] and [Ι] are in Spanish) compared to members of different classes (as [i] and [Ι] are in English) and talk about what that means.

    "I couldn't see how anyone would understand in what sense [i] is a member of a class of speech sounds."
    And yet somehow they do. :-)

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