P is for Phoneme

17 03 2013

aeIs the phoneme dead?

We’ve been doing a unit on phonology, and my doubts about the phoneme are partly a reflection of my students’ own difficulties with the concept.  Not surprisingly, I’ve been having to tease out the difference between phonemic symbols and phonetic symbols, and even between phonology and phonics.

But all the time I’ve been dreading the day when someone challenges this definition (from An A to Z):

‘A phoneme is one of the distinctive sounds of a particular language. That is to say, it is not any sound, but it is a sound that, to speakers of the language, cannot be replaced with another sound without causing a change in meaning’.

The definition has an authoritative ring to it, not least because it simply re-states what by many is considered a founding principle of all linguistics. Listen to Jakobson (1990: 230) who practically bellows the fact: ’The linguistic value … of any phoneme in any language whatever, is only its power to distinguish the word containing this phoneme from any words which, similar in all other respects, contain some other phoneme’ (emphasis in original).

dHow is it, then, that we regularly teach that the ‘s’ at the end of cats is a different phoneme than the ‘s’ at the end of dogs?  If different phonemes flag different meanings, what change of meaning is represented in the difference between /s/ and /z/? Or, for that matter, between final /t/ and final /d/, as in chased and killed?   If there is no difference in meaning (since /s/ and /z/ both index plurality, and /t/ and /d/ both index past tense), aren’t they simply different ways of pronouncing the same phoneme?

Phonemes, after all, are not phones, i.e. sounds. Acoustically speaking there are many different ways – even for a single speaker – of realizing a specific phoneme. This is why Daniel Jones (1950: 7) defined phonemes as ‘small families of sounds, each family consisting of an important sound of the language together with other related sounds’ (my emphasis). These related sounds are the different allophones of the phoneme.

Hence the analogy with chess pieces: the way individual chess pieces are designed will vary from set to set, but they will always bear certain family resemblances, bishops all having mitres, and knights having horse heads, etc. More important than their form (and one reason that this analogy seems to work so well),  is the relationship that they have with one another, including the ‘rules’ that constrain the way that they may behave. Bishops can’t do what knights do, nor go where knights go, and vice versa.

Phonemes – like chess pieces – are defined in relation to one another. As Bloomfield (1935: 81) put it, ‘the phoneme is kept distinct from all other phonemes of its language. Thus, we speak the vowel of a word like pen in a great many ways, but not in any way that belongs to the vowel of pin, and not in any way that belongs to the vowel of pan: the three types are kept rigidly apart.’

ngIn fact, a purely structuralist argument would say it’s not actually about meaning at all, it’s about ‘complementary distribution’, or, as Jones (1950: 132) puts it (also bellowing): ‘NO ONE MEMBER EVER OCCURS IN A  WORD IN THE SAME PHONETIC CONTEXT AS ANY OTHER MEMBER’.  That is to say, the /s/ at the end of cats and the /z/ at the end of dogs never occur where the other occurs, and vice versa. But is this true? What happens to the /z/ at the end of dogs in the sentence: The dogs seem restless? Hasn’t it become /s/?

Ah, yes, you say – but sounds in connected speech are influenced by their environment, blending with or accommodating to the sounds around them. The true test for a phoneme is if it distinguishes isolated words, like pin and pen – those infamous minimal pairs. But when are words ever isolated? When does the phonetic environment not have an effect?  And isn’t the voiced /z/ at the end of dogs, and the unvoiced /s/ at the end of cats also an effect of the phonetic environment? That is to say, where does connected speech start becoming connected if not at the juxtaposition of two sounds?

It gets even trickier when we consider weak forms. There are at least two different ways of saying can, as in I can dance: I /kæn/ dance, or I /kən/ dance. Both are possible, even where the stress remains on dance. The latter is simply more reduced. But the meaning is unchanged. [kæn] and [kən] are not minimal pairs. They are different phonetic realizations of the same word (hence the square brackets). Phonetic. Not phonemic. Shouldn’t, therefore, they both be transcribed as /kæn/?

In researching this, I’ve encountered a lot of debate as to whether the concept of the phoneme has any currency at all any more. As one scholar puts it, ‘the phoneme, to all appearances, no longer holds a central place in phonological theory’ (Dresher 2011: 241). The problem seems to boil down to one of identification: is the phoneme a physical thing that can be objectively described, or is it psychological – a mental representation independent of the nature of the acoustic signal?

eThe answer to the first question (is it physical?) seems to be no, there are no ‘distinctive features’ or family resemblances (such as voicing or lip-rounding) that unequivocally categorize sounds as belonging to one phoneme family and not another.

On the other hand, there is some evidence, including neurological, that the phoneme does have a psychological reality, and that speakers of languages that share the same sounds will perceive these sounds differently, according to whether they flag meaning differences or not. (This is analogous to the idea that if your language does not distinguish between blue and green, you will see both blue and green as being shades of the same colour).  This, in turn, is consistent with Jakobson’s claim that ‘if we compare any two particular languages, we will see that from an acoustic and motor point of view their sounds could be identical, while the way they are grouped into phonemes is different’ (p. 223).

It’s not for nothing, therefore, that the concept of the phoneme has given us the very valuable distinction between emic and etic, i.e. the perspective of the insider vs that of the outsider. Phonemes capture something that we, the insiders, intuit about language, even if their objective reality is elusive. We know that pronunciation impacts on meaning, even if we don’t quite know how.

Perhaps Jakobson (op. cit. 230) had good reason to claim, therefore, that ‘the phoneme functions, ergo it exists’.


Bloomfield, L. (1935) Language, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Dresher, E. (2011) ‘The Phoneme’, in van Oostendorp, M., Ewen, C.J., Hume, E., & Rice, K. (eds) The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, Oxford: Blackwell, available here

Jakobson, R. (1990) On Language, edited by Waugh, L.R. & Monville-Burston, M., Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Jones, D. (1950) The Phoneme: Its nature and use, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons.

Illustrations from the very clever phonemic chart that comes with English File (Oxenden, C. and Seligson, P., 1996, Oxford University Press).