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Sounds Used in Pronouncing English

Sounds Used in Pronouncing English
Sounds Used in Pronouncing English

Sounds Used in Pronouncing English

Phone, Phoneme, Allophone


Phone: noun: 1. sound.  “Recognizable speech sounds are called phones.”

-phone: suffix: combining form that means “sound.” “Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently.” – often used in the names of musical instruments and devices that relate to sound “Bring the saxophone closer to the microphone, please.”

Phoneme: noun: the smallest unit of speech that can be used to make one word different from another word. “The sounds represented by “c” and “b” are different phonemes, as in the words “cat” and “bat.”

An example of a phoneme is the /t/ sound in the words tip, stand, water, and cat. (In transcription, phonemes are placed between slashes, as here.) These instances of /t/ are considered to fall under the same sound category despite the fact that in each word they are pronounced somewhat differently. The difference may not even be audible to native speakers, or the audible differences not perceived. That is, a phoneme may encompass several recognizably different speech sounds, called phones. In our example, the /t/ in tip is aspirated, [tʰ], while the /t/ in stand is not, [t]. (In transcription, speech sounds that are not phonemes are placed in brackets, as here.) In many languages, such as Korean and Spanish, these phones are different phonemes: For example, /tol/ is “stone” in Korean, whereas /tʰol/ is “grain of rice”.

Allophone: noun: one of two or more variants of the same phoneme. “The aspirated /p/ of “pin” and the un-aspirated /p/ of “spin” are allophones of the phoneme /p/. A phoneme can be pronounced in different ways according to its context.


  • The difference between /t/ in : “tea,” “eat,” “writer,” “eighth,” “two”
  • The difference between /i:/ in: “see,” “seed,” “seat,” “seen”

Therefore, a phoneme may have more than one realization. The different realizations of a phoneme are called allophones of that phoneme.

  • /t/ a phoneme of English
  • [th] an allophone of /t/ in English
  • [t] an allophone of /t/ in English

We say that [th] and [t] are allophones of the same phoneme (namely, /t/).

Quotes from several linguistics texts regarding allophones:

“Every speech sound we utter is an allophone of some phoneme and can be grouped together with other phonetically similar sounds.”

William O’Grady, et. al. Contemporary Linguistics.  Bedford, 2001

“The allophones of a phoneme form a set of sounds that (1) do not change the meaning of a word, (2) are all very similar to one another, and (3) occur in phonetic contexts different from one another–for example, syllable initial as opposed to syllable final. The differences between allophones can be stated in terms of phonological rules.”

– Peter Ladefoged and Keith Johnson, A Course in Phonetics, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2011

“The choice of one allophone rather than another may depend on such factors as communicative situation, language variety, and social class. . . . When we consider the wide range of possible realizations of any given phoneme (even by a single speaker), it becomes clear that we owe the vast majority of allophones in free variation to idiolects or simply to chance, and that the number of such allophones is virtually infinite.”

– Paul Skandera and Peter Burleigh, A Manual of English Phonetics and Phonology. Gunter Narr Verlag, 2005


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