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Methods of Phonological Analysis

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Phonetic notations

Anyone who wants to represent speech sounds in writing has to use the system of phonetic notations, which is generally termed as “transcription”. There are two general types of transcription - broad and narrow.

The first one, broad or phonemic transcription, provides special symbols for all the phonemes of a language. There are various systems of phonetic transcription in use for English, among which the best-known one is that of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The difference among present-day sets of broad transcription of British English is mainly due to the varying significance which is attached to vowel quality and quantity. The transcription introduced by D. Jones aims at reducing the number of symbols to a minimum, so this type does not reflect the difference in vowel quality, but states only the difference in vowel quantity and gives the same symbols for the following pairs of vowels: [i: - i], [u: - u], [ɔ: - ɔ], [ə: - ə]. This type of notation ignores the qualitative difference between these vowels, though most phoneticians nowadays agree that the vowel length is not a distinctive feature of the vowel. The other type of broad transcription is most frequently used in English publishing. It provides special symbols for all the English vowel phonemes: [i: - ɪ], [u: - ʊ], [ɔ: - ɒ], [ɜ: - ə]. Besides this type of notation is a good visual aid and is especially useful in teaching the pronunciation of English.

Narrow (or phonetic) transcription is mainly applied in research work. It provides special symbols for all the allophones of the same phoneme, so it is much more accurate in phonetic detail and contains much more information than a phonemic transcription. For example: [ł] indicates the hard variant of [l]; [kh] shows that [k] is aspirated; [dr] means post-alveolar [d], etc.

To study the sounds of a language we should know what sounds a language uses and how they are grouped into phonemes that are capable of differentiating the meaning. The aim of the phonological analysis is to determine which differences of sounds are phonemic/non-phonemic (that is distinctive or irrelevant for differentiating the meaning) and secondly, to find the inventory of the phonemes of this or that language.

One of the methods which is applied is the semantically distributional method. It is accepted by most foreign and Russian linguists. The method is based on phonological oppositions. The phonological rule says that phonemes can distinguish meanings when they are opposed to one another in the same phonetic context. So if we substitute a sound for another sound in the same phonetic environment we shall be able to find out whether such substitution affects the meaning or not. This procedure is called commutation test. In fact it consists in establishing the so-called minimal pairs of words and their grammatical forms.

A minimal pair is a pair of words or morphemes which are differentiated by one sound only in the same position. For example, if we substitute [t] for [s] in [ti:] it will result in the change of meaning: [ti: - si:] (tea – sea), so we conclude that [t] and [s] are allophones of two different phonemes. If we continue to substitute [t] for [b], [p], [k], [n], etc. we get minimal pairs of words with different meanings. So, all these sounds are allophones of different phonemes. But when we substitute [t] for [th] the pronunciation of the word will be wrong from the point of view of English pronunciation norm, but the word will still retain its meaning, so we may conclude that [t] and [th] are allophones of one phoneme. When we come to a meaningless word as in the example when we substitute [g] for [k] in the sound sequences [gʌn] and [kʌn], we can’t state the phonemic status of the contrasted sounds, so we should look for some other minimal pairs in which these two sounds are contrasted.

The phonemes of a language form a certain system of oppositions. To establish the phonemic system of a language is to establish all possible oppositions. All the sounds should be opposed in initial, medial and final word positions. There are three kinds of oppositions: single, double and multiple. The opposition is single if the members of the opposition differ in one feature. Let’s look at the pair [dɪg] - [dɪk]. Both [g] and [k] are occlusive and backlingual, but [g] is lenis and [k] is fortis. The opposition is double if its members differ in two features, as in [dɪk] - [dɪd]. Both [k] and [d] are occlusive, but [k] is backlingual, fortis and [d] is forelingual, lenis. If three or more distinctive features are marked in the opposition it is called multiple. For example [dɪk] - [dɪm]: [k] and [m] are both occlusive, but [k] is backlingual, noise, oral, and [m] is bilabial, sonorant, nasal.

The use of the commutation test has its problems. Firstly certain sounds do not occur in certain positions. For example, [h] in English never occurs word finally, while [h] never occurs word initially. So we cannot oppose these sounds as they never occur in the same phonetic context. In such cases the method of distribution is modified by addition of the criterion of phonetic similarity. We refer these sounds to different phonemes as their articulatory features are different. Besides we take into account native speaker's knowledge as far as the meaning of the word is concerned as the aim of linguistic analysis is to explain and to consider native speaker's feelings about his language as far as this is possible.

The second difficulty is that there are cases when both sounds occur in a language but the speakers are inconsistent in the way they use them, as for example in the case of the Russian words "галоши/ калоши". In such cases we take them as free variants of a single phoneme.

Besides this method does not take into account the modifications of sounds which they undergo in real speech. For example, in such sequences as [ækt] and [æpt] the realizations of the allophones of [k] and [p] are alike: acoustically it is silence of the same duration. It is the character of transition from [æ] to [k] and [p] that differentiates the meaning, in other words the differentiation of meaning is provided not by the phonemes themselves, but indirectly by the adjacent sound.

There are some other problems connected with the phonemic analysis of the English sounds, for example, the problem of defining the phonemic status of the English affricates [ʧ - ʤ]. It is possible to treat each of the pair as a single consonant phoneme, or we may say that they are composed of two phonemes each – [t+ʃ] and [d+ʒ]. There is also no agreement between phoneticians concerning the phonemic status of the neutral vowel [ə]. Some scientists have suggested that it is an allophone of several other vowels in unstressed positions. On the other hand, in numerous cases [ə] is phonologically opposed to other phonemes and is capable of differentiating the meaning, for example, accept [əkˈsept] – except [ɪkˈsept], so it may be viewed as an independent phoneme.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties the semantic method of phonological analysis is now widely used and is considered to be the best in fulfilling the task of systematizing the sounds of a language.

The application of this method has proved that the English language has 24 consonant and 20 vowel phonemes. As we have mentioned sounds are grouped into classes according to the features which are distinctive (or phonemic) for the particular language. In English the following features are distinctive for consonants:

- place of articulation (labial, lingual, glottal)

- type of obstruction and manner of the production of noise (constrictive, fricative, affricate)

- force of articulation (fortis, lenis)

The phonemic features of English vowels are:

- quality (which depends on the height and front-back position of the tongue)

- stability of articulation.


Tasks and questions:

Read on the topic “The Functional Aspect of Speech Sounds” and answer the questions:

1. Is palatalisation a distinctive feature in English? In Russian? Prove it.

2. Is lip rounding a distinctive feature in English? In Russian? Prove it.

3. Is force of articulation a distinctive feature in English? In Russian? Prove it.

4. State the differences between the allophones in the following pairs of work


pat – pit in the desk – in a desk
scare – care stop Mary – stop Peter
trick – tick glow – go
cradle – trade garden - guide

5. Give your own examples of different allophones of the phonemes [p, d, k].

6. Are the following mistakes phonetic or phonological?

beat – [bi:t] meat – [mɪt] star – [stʰa:] work – [wɔ:k] days – [deɪs] bad – [bed] bar – [baʳ] car – [ka:] little – [ˈłɪtl] tease – [tˈi:z]

7. Sort out the oppositions according to the following features: bilabial/labio-dental, fore-lingual/backlingual, alveolar/inter-dental

ni:z – ði:z sɔ:t - kɔ:t bu:ð- bu:t Ɵɪk - dɪk fɔ:m - wɔ:m traɪ - kraɪ mɔ: - fɔ: gru: - tru: wi:k – vi:l


8. Sort out the oppositions according to the following features: constrictive/occlusive, noise/sonorant, occlusive/affricate

fi:t – bi:t tɔ:ʧ - tɔ:k sɪk - sɪŋ
rɪd - sɪd slɜʊ - blɜʊ tɔ:t – Ɵɔ:t
ʤʌʤ - bʌʤ ʧɛə - pɛə bɜʊt - nɜʊt

9. Sort out the oppositions according to the following features: front/central, mid/open, diphthong/monophthong

mæn – men pɔ:k - pɜʊk li:k - lʌk   bed - bɜ:d stɛə - stɜ: sɔ:t – set   mæd - mʌd bɜʊt - baʊ nɒt - naɪt

10. Are the following oppositions singular, double, multiple?


lʌk - lʌb pen - peɪn pu:l - pʊl fɜʊn - kɜʊn sta: - stɔ: dɔ:n - tɔ:n fi:l – mi:l stɪk - stɪl wet – met ðeɪ- seɪ bɪl - tɪl ðæt - kæt waɪf - laɪf ri:d – ni:d wɪŋ - wɪn  

11. Make reports about different conceptions of the Phoneme Theory in our country and abroad.

Recommended literature:

1. Соколова М.А., Гинтовт К.П. и др. Практическая фонетика английского языка - М.: Высшая школа, 1997. – 384 с.

2. Соколова М.А., Гинтовт К.П., Тихонова И.С., Тихонова Р.М. Теоретическая фонетика английского языка - М.: Высшая школа, 1997. – 384 с.

3. Шевченко Т.И. Теоретическая фонетика английского языка – М.: Высшая школа, 2006. – 191 с.

4. Roach P. English Phonetics and Phonology. - Cambridge: Cambr. Univ. Press, 1987

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