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Lecture 3. Functional Aspect of Speech Sounds

Separate segments of speech continuum have no meaning of their own, they mean something only in combinations, which are called words.

Phonetics studies sounds as articulatory and acoustic units, phonology investigates sounds as units, which serve communicative purposes. Phonetics and phonology are closely connected. The unit of phonetics is a speech sound, the unit of phonology is a phoneme. Phonemes can be discovered by the method of minimal pairs. This method consists in findiing pairs of words which differ in one phoneme. For example, if we replace /b/ by /f/ in the word ban we produce a new word fan, bantan is a pair of words distinguished in meaning by a single sound change. Two words of this kind are termed "minimal pair". It is possible to take this process further, we can also produce can, ran, man, fan — it is a minimal set. The change of the vowel /æ/ in ban provides us with another minimal set: bun, bone, Ben, burn, boon, born. The change of the final /n/ in ban will result in a third minimal set: bad, bat, back, badge, bang. To establish the phonemes of the language the phonologist tries to find pairs that show which sounds occur or do not occur in identical positions – commutation test.

The phonemes of a language form a system of oppositions, in which any one phoneme is usually opposed to any other phoneme in at least one position in at least one lexical or grammatical minimal or sub-minimal pair. If the substitution of one sound for another results in the change of meaning, the commuted sounds are different phonemes, speech sounds which are phonologically significant.

The founder of the phoneme theory was I.A. Baudouin de Courteney, the Russian scientist of Polish origin. His theory of phoneme was developed and perfected by L.V. Shcherba — the head of the Leningrad linguistic school, who stated that in actual speech we utter a much greater variety of sounds than we are aware of, and that in every language these sounds are united in a comparatively small number of sound types, which are capable of distinguishing the meaning and the form of words; that is they serve the purpose of social intercommunication. It is these sound types that should be included into the classification of phonemes and studied as differentiatory units of the language. The actually pronounced speech sounds are variants, or allophones of phonemes. Allophones are realized in concrete words. They have phonetic similarity, that is their acoustic and articulatory features have much in common, at the same they differ in some degree and are incapable of differentiating words. For example, in speech we pronounce not the sound type /t/, which is alveolar, forelingual, apical, occlusive, plosive, voiceless-fortis — according to the classificatory definition, but one of its variants, e.g. labialised in the word twice, dental in the word eighth, post-alveolar in try, exploded nasally in written, exploded laterally in little, pronounced without aspiration in stay, etc. Another example: the sound type, or the vowel phoneme /i:/, which is defined as "unrounded, fully front, high, narrow, tense, free", is more back in key, than in eat under the influence of the backlingual /k/, it is longer before a voiced lenis, than before a voiceless fortis consonant: seedseat, greedgreet, etc.

The number of sound types, or phonemes, in each language is much smaller than the number of sounds actually pronounced. Phonemic variants, or allophones, are very important for language teaching because they are pronounced in actual speech and though their mispronunciation does not always influence the meaning of the words, their misuse makes a person’s speech sound as “foreign”.

That variant of the phoneme which is described as the most represen­tative and free from the influence of the neighbouring phonemes is considered to be typical, or principal. The variants used in actual speech are called subsidiary. Subsidiary allophones can be positional and combinatory. Positional allophones are used in certain positions traditionally. For example, the English /l/ is realized in actual speech as a positional allophone; it is clear in the initial position, and dark in the terminal position, in light, let and hill, mill. Russian positional allophones can be observed in вопль, рубль where terminal /л/ is devoiced after voiceless /п, б/.

Combinatory allophones appear in the process of speech and result from the influence of one phoneme upon another.

To distinguish the sound types from their allophones in writing, two types of brackets are used: slant-like for the phonemes proper, and square – for their allophones, e. g. the phoneme /1/ has two positional allophones: clear [1] and dark [1]. In practical teaching the most important allophones should be mentioned to teach the pupils correct pronunciation.

Each phoneme manifests itself in a certain pattern of distribution. The simplest of them is free variation, that is the variation of one and the same phoneme pronounced differently, e. g. the pronunciation of the ini­tial /k/ with different degrees of aspiration, the pronunciation of /w/ as / m / in why, which, who.

Complementary distribution is another pattern of phoneme environment, when one and the same phoneme occurs in a definite set of con­texts in which no other phoneme ever occurs. The allophones of one and the same phoneme never occur in the same context, variants of one pho­neme are mutually exclusive.

Contrastive distribution is one more pattern of phoneme environment, e. g. saidsad, pitpeat, badbed — these are minimal pairs.

Minimal distinctive features are discovered through oppositions. This method helps to prove whether the phonemic difference is relevant or not, whether the opposition is single, double or multiple, e.g. /t/ and /d/ differ along the following lines:

/t/ /d/

voiceless fortis voiced lenis


Their other characteristic features are irrelevant, thus /t/ and /d/ have only one distinctively relevant feature — single opposition. We can prove that this opposition is really phonemic by the minimal pairs: tenden, timedime, trydry. If there are two distinctively relevant features, the opposition is double, e.g. /p/ and /d/ differ along the following lines:

/p/ /d/

voiceless fortis voiced lenis

labial, bilabial lingual, forelingual, apical, alveolar

This opposition is really phonemic. It can be proved by the minimal pairs: piedie, paildale, prydry. The opposition /b/ — /h/ is multiple because these phonemes differ along the following lines:

/b/ /h/

voiced lenis, voiceless fortis,

labial, bilabial pharyngal,

occlusive constrictive

The phonemic nature of this opposition can be proved by minimal pairs, e.g. behe, bithit, baithate.

Russian phoneticians perform commutation tests on the basis of the knowledge of the grammatical form and the meaning of the words, they apply the semantic method of phoneme identification.

The method of minimal pairs helps to establish the inventory of phonemes, it is one of the two main problems of phonological analysis. The other big problem phonologists are confronted with is to define the phonemic status of the sound in the neutral position.

There is one more big problem in phonology — theory of distinctive features.

It was originated by N.S. Trubetskoy and developed by such foreign scientists as R. Jackobson, С.G. Fant, M. Halle, N. Chomsky, P. Lade-I. H. Kucera, G.K. Monroe and many Russian phonologists, such as L.R. Zinder, G.S. Klychkov, V. Ya. Plotkin, Steponavicius.

The taxonomy of differentiatory features is being constructed on the basis of objective reality of phonological distinction, which really exists in phonemic classes. Distinctive features are the main, basic elements of variability in different languages. The commutation of meaning and utterance is effected due to these features.

Enriching the theory of distinctive features Prof. G. S. Klychkov introduced a modal feature of "turbulency" to make the hierarchy of consonants more logical. He states that the main question of distinctive theory is the criterion of frequency and the direction of markedness.

There are different opinions on the nature of the phoneme and its definition.

I.I.A. Baudouin de Courteney (1845-1929) defined the phoneme as a physical image of a sound. He originated the so called "mentalist" view of the phoneme. In our days Prof. V.Ya. Plotkin thinks it appropriate to revive the terms "kinema" and "acousma" coined by Baudouin deCourteney for the psychic images of articulatory movements and their auditory counterparts and blended into "kinakeme" to designate the bi­lateral psychophonic unit. He states that experimental investigations demonstrate the impossibility of accepting the phoneme as the basic unit in the production and perception of oral speech. Speech production and perception are cerebral activities first and foremost, while the sound chain is the vehicle for their externalization. Thus phonemes are composed of kinakemes which possess the paradigmatic, syntagmatic and semantic properties, characteristic of other phonological units, and are ultimate phonological units. The acceptance of the kinakeme makes the notion of distinctive phonemic features redundant in phonemic theory because the kinakeme covers practically the same ground as the notion of "distincitive feature". V.Ya. Plotkin suggests two dichotomies:

1. Kinakemic system consists of two sub-systems: vocalic and consonantal, which are not rigidly separated.

2. All kinakemes are divided into two categories: modal and locational.

Modal kinakemes are concerned with the origin of sounds and the vertical dimensions of the vocal tract. (1) Obstruction: a) occlusion, b) constriction. (2) Phonal: a) sonority, b) discordance.

Consonantal modal kinakemes determine the mode of obstruction and the acoustic type of sound-tone or noise, their vocalic kinakemes deal with the height of the vocal tract.

Locational kinakemes: vocalic and consonantal, function on the horizontal plane, activating certain areas along the vocal tract. (1) Articulatory: a) prelinguality, b) postlinguality. (2) Pointal: a) prealveolarity, b) postalveolarity.

The phoneme retains its status of the minimal unit of sound in the language system. Its indivisibility should be qualified as inability to be broken up into smaller units of sound. As for the ultimate phonologi­cal unit, it is an instrument for the linguistic structuring of extralinguistic| substance which might be called prephonic rather than phonic.

II. The abstractional conception of the phoneme was originated by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the famous Swiss linguist and the Danish linguist L. Hjelmslev (1889-1965). It was advocated by their pupils in the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle. The "abstract" view regards the phoneme independent of the phonetic properties.

III. N.S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), L. Bloomfield (1887-1949), K. Jakobson (1896-1982) viewed the phoneme as the minimal sound units by which meanings may be differentiated. They stated that the features of the phoneme involved in the differentiation of words are called distinctive. They can be found in contrastive sets.

IV. The physical view on the phoneme was originated by D. Jones (1881-1967). He defined the phoneme as a "family" of sounds. The members of the family show phonetic similarity. No member of the family can occur in the same phonetic context as any other member.

This view was shared by the American scientists B. Bloch and G. Trager. They define the phoneme as a class of phonetically similar sounds, contrasting and mutually exclusive with all similar classes in the language.

V. The problem of the phoneme can be solved on a "populational basis” J.A. Perry, 1974), that is on the definition of the phoneme as a unit of an idiolect (D. Jones, K. Pike), a dialect (L. Bloomfield), a multidialect – the phoneme is a unit of the English Language as a whole (Q. Trager, H. Smith, or a "supralect" — the phoneme is a unit of a standard form, by which the dialects and idiolects may be compared (J.A. Perry).

VI. L.V. Shcherba (1880-1944) was the first to define the phoneme as a real, independent distinctive unit which manifests itself in the form of allophones. Prof. V.A. Vassilyev developed Shcherba's theory and presented a detailed definition of the phoneme in his book "English Phonetics. A Theoretical Course", where he writes that a phoneme is a dialectical unity of three aspects: (1) material, real and objective, (2) abstractional and generalized, (3) functional. It serves to perform the following functions: (a) constitutive, (b) distinctive and (c) recognitive. V.A. Vassilyev statesthat phoneme is material, real and objective because it really exists in the material form of speech sounds, allophones. It is an objective reality, existing independently from our will, or intention. It is an abstraction, because we make it abstract from concrete realizations for classificatory purposes; it functions to make one word or its grammatical form distinct from the other, it constitutes words and helps to recognize them.

It is interesting to trace the phonemic status of a sound in the neutral position and to define to what phoneme it belongs.

There arc different opinions on this problem.

The Moscow phonologists state that alternations in one and the same unit are connected with morphology, their school is called "morphological”. For example, in водаводы /Λ/ /о/ are allophones of the same phoneme /o/. In морозморозы /c/ /з/ are allophones of the same pho­neme /з/.

The Leningrad school supports another view: phoneme is indepen­dent of the morpheme. The content of the morpheme is constant.

The Prague phonological school introduced a broader unit than "pho­neme". It is "archiphoneme". According to Trubetskoy an archiphoneme is a combination of distinctive features common to two different phonemes, which excludes their distinguishing feature. For example, in /t/ / d/ it is voiceless-fortis vs. voiced-lenis character which makes them sim­ilar in the neutral position /кот/ /код/. None of the concepts is ideal, but in present-day English it is important to trace sound variations, in the process of alternation, which may differentiate words and their forms.


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