M is for Minimal pairs

8 10 2017

The story of the Australian pig farmer whose livestock were decimated by floods has been circulating on the Internet recently. A reporter misheard him say that ‘Thirty thousand pigs were floating down the river’, and reported it as such. In fact, what he had said was: ‘Thirty sows and pigs…’.  A nice example of how a minimal pair mistake can cause problems even among native speakers.

Just to remind you, here’s how minimal pairs are defined in The New A-Z of ELT:

A minimal pair is a pair of words which differ in meaning when only one sound (one phoneme) is changed. Pair and bear are minimal pairs, since their difference in meaning depends on the different pronunciation of their first sound: p versus b. However, pair and pear are not minimal pairs, since, although they differ in meaning, they are pronounced the same. Minimal pairs are widely used in pronunciation teaching to help learners discriminate between sound contrasts, particularly those that don’t exist in their L1, for the purposes of both recognition and production.

On the MA course I teach for The New School, I set the students a task in which they describe how they might exploit this kind of minimal pairs activity (from Baker 2006):

ship or sheep 2006

Here’s my feedback on the task:

As I suggest, such activities may have limited usefulness. Indeed, does anyone still do them?


Baker, A. (2006) Ship or sheep? (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


I is for Intonation

22 02 2015

For someone who has never enjoyed – nor succeeded at – teaching intonation, I was gratified to find that John Wells shares my scepticism. In his latest book, Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics (Wells 2014) he writes:

Most learners of English as an additional language… are not taught intonation and do not study intonation. Yet they do not speak English on a monotone. A few may be gifted mimics who succeed in imitating intonation along with everything else in the phonetics of the target language. For most, though, their intonation patterns are presumably those of their first language, transferred to English.

The same applies to English learners of foreign languages.

On the whole, even though this may make the speaker sound strange, typical of their origin, boring or annoying, it seems not to cause much of an actual breakdown in communication. How can this be?

It must be because the principles of intonation in language are sufficiently universal for us to be able to rely on them even in a foreign-language situation.

Wells Sounds InterestingWells (who, I hope I don’t have to remind you, is probably Britain’s foremost phonetician) goes on to look at the different functions of intonation in terms of their universality. The three systems in which intonation is implicated are: 1. the tonality system, i.e. the chunking of speech into meaningful units; 2. the tonicity system, i.e. the assigning of nuclear stress within these units; and 3. the tone system, i.e. the use of changes in pitch to convey certain kinds of meaning, such as assertion vs non-assertion, completion vs non-completion, high involvement vs low involvement.

Of the three, he argues that tonality and the meaningful use of tones seem both to be linguistic universals. Tonicity, on the other hand, does not. Whereas in English we would ask

Do you want your coffee WITH milk or withOUT milk?

in Spanish this would more likely be:

¿Quiere el café con LECHe or sin LECHe?

Given the way that nuclear stress plays an important role in flagging new information in discourse, this would seem to be something worth teaching, if not for production, at least for recognition.

human_body faceA quick scan of a number of current coursebooks suggests that it is an area that does indeed get fairly regular – if not detailed – treatment. But so too do the other, supposedly universal, features of intonation, such as the use of a wide pitch span, or high key, to signal politeness. Or the different intonation contours of wh- and yes/no questions. Or the use of falling intonation to signal the end of a list. And so on.

Are we wasting our students’ time? If their goal is to be communicatively effective in international contexts, probably yes. In making her case for a lingua franca phonological core, Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 153) argues:

Even if it were possible to teach pitch in the classroom, I do not believe that the use of “native speaker” pitch movements matters very much for intelligibility in interactions among [non-native speakers]. This feature of the intonation system seldom leads to communication problems in the [interlanguage talk] data …

But, anticipating Wells, she goes on to argue:

Nuclear stress, however is a completely different story [and] it is crucial for intelligibility in interlanguage talk (ibid.).

With regard to the redundancy of teaching the rest of the systems, Wells (who happens to be a fluent speaker of Esperanto) nails his case thus:

These points about intonation in EFL applied equally to intonation in Esperanto: somehow speakers manage to understand one another in the language very well despite the lack of any agreed, taught or described intonation system.


Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, J.C. 2014. Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(This post started life as a thread on the Facebook site of the ELT Writers Connected group.)

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).

P is for Phonemic Chart

8 08 2010

(That’s phonEMIC, not phonETIC, by the way. There’s a big difference!)

Ever since I’ve been teaching in the US I’ve been challenged by the need to devise a chart of the phonemes of American English (General American or GA) that can be used in the same way as the original British English (RP) chart, both as a training and a teaching tool. (Incidentally, it’s an often overlooked fact that the layout of the original RP chart – along with lots of ways of exploiting it in class – is due to the work of Adrian Underhill).

Adrian Underhill’s ‘Sound Foundations’ Chart (Macmillan)

In fact, the search for a GA equivalent goes back even earlier, to 1995, when I was assessing a CELTA course here in New York and was surprised to find that the language analysis trainer was trying to knock the round peg of GA sounds into the square hole of the RP chart. Fifteen years later I discover that not much has changed: another large training organisation here is using an “Americanized” version of the original RP chart, but one which not only includes five more vowel sounds than GA is normally credited with having, but adds two diphthongs ( /ʌɪ/ and /ɔʊ/) that, as far as I know, belong to no known variety of English!

Of course, the problem of devising a GA chart is complicated by the fact that – unlike the case of RP – there is no single, agreed upon, system of transcribing American vowels. (Compare any two American learners’ dictionaries, for instance). This is probably due to the fact that, while there is less accent variation across North America than there is within the British Isles, there is no single variety that can (or is allowed to) claim the prestigious status that RP enjoys.

In 2007, while teaching at SIT in Brattleboro, Vermont, I came up with a chart that was based closely on the description in Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) – see inset below (click to expand).

GA chart (after Celce-Murcia et. al., 1996)

The layout of the chart attempts to reflect the elegance of Adrian’s RP chart, with the consonants ranged from front-of-mouth to back-of-mouth obstruction, and the vowels roughly mapped on to the classic (Daniel Jones?) vowel quadrant. In terms of the symbols, the consonants were not a problem: the only change involved changing the symbol /j/ for a /y/. The vowels were another story.

First of all the layout had to be reconfigured to accommodate the fewer vowel sounds of GA (16 vs 20 in RP). While the three ‘heterogenous’ diphthongs are separated out and colour-coded, no attempt was made to distinguish the simple vowels from the vowels with an adjacent glide (/iy/, /ey/, /ow/) since the latter, technically, are not diphthongs.  Nor were combinations with /r/ (such as /ır/ and /or/) included, since, technically, these are not individual phonemes but are attempts to represent the way certain vowel sounds are “colored” by the consonants that follow them (which may be /r/, /l/ or /rl/). The only exception I made was the case of /ɜr/ which, as Celce-Murcia et al. point out, is used “to capture a significant difference in quality between the /ʌ/ in bud and the /ɜr/ in bird” (p. 105) and which they include as their “15th phoneme” of North American English (the 16th being the schwa).  Finally, an optional superscript /r/ was added to the schwa, because the combination of schwa and post-vocalic /r/ is often distinguished from schwa, phonetically, by being transcribed with a different symbol (ɚ). This represents the (phonemic) difference in GA between the final vowels in cheeta and cheater, for example. Note also that both /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ are represented in the chart, in deference to those varieties of GA that do distinguish between caught and cot.

This chart has served OK over the years, but I’ve not been entirely happy with it – not least because of the use of the consonant symbols /y/ and /w/ to flag lengthening and lip rounding, as well as the clumsy superscript [r]s. So I revisted the literature, and came up with a new one, based on the description in Roca and Johnson (1999). The consonants remain as they were. The main differences to the vowels is that I’ve abandoned the /y/ and /w/ add-ons, susbtituting symbols that more accurately realise the phonetic qualities of the homogeneous (adjacent glide) and heterogeneous (non-adjacent glide) diphthongs, colour-coding these respectively, as well as substituting the symbol ɚ for the r-coloured schwa alternative, and /ɝ/ for the r-coloured vowel in bird. I’ve also re-positioned /ʌ/ so that its central and back quality is more accurately represented, and turned the division between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ into a dotted line to flag that, in some varieties, these two sounds are not distinguished. : chart v5

All comments will be gratefully received and acknowledged.


Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., and Goodwin, J.M. (1996) Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge University Press.

Roca, I., and Johnson, W. (1999) A Course in Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.


Click here ( US phonemic chart ) to see a pdf version of Adrian Underhill’s GA Chart – mentioned in his comments below. (Thanks, Adrian!)