Phonemes & Allophones

Phoneme & Allophones


Phonemes :-

Phoneme can be defined as a minimal distinctive unit of the sound system of a language. By minimal we mean that it can not be sub divided and by distinctive we mean that it is a unique sound and has the potentiality of changing the meaning of a word. Bloomfield has defined phonemes as follows : "phoneme is the minimal unit of distinctive sound feature".

          Phonemes may be understood as a smallest unit that has the capacity of changing the whole meaning of a word. For example in the words 'put' and 'but' we can see that just a single sound has changed the meaning of the word. 'p' and 'b' are the two individual and distinctive units of sound in the English sound system and are referred as the phonemes of English language. Generally, these single distinctive sounds do not possess any meaning on their own, but when arranged in a word, each distinct sound starts contributing to the meaning of that word. And by changing a single sound that word's meaning can be changed altogether. Hence, phonemes are the part of the system of one specific language; and therefore the phoneme of a language may or may not be found in other languages. Different languages have their own sound systems with some common sounds, but no language has all the sounds that can be articulated by us. In order to make it more clear, it must be noted that phonemes are not the actual utterances that one make of a sound but these are the ideal sound units of a language, which one may aspire for.

Allophones :-

As mentioned earlier phonemes are the ideal abstract sounds. However, these sounds can be realised with small variations in pronunciation but the actual meaning of that sound does not change. For example each individual will pronounce the word 'go' or 'me' in a unique way but we take the same meaning of that pronunciation despite there being  some slight differences. This is because these slightly different actualisations of a sound are allophones of the same phoneme. Thus, allophones are different realisations of the same phoneme; these are non-significant variants of a phoneme.

Let's take the example of two words 'top' and 'stop'. In the first word /t/ sound is aspirated and in the second word it is unaspirated. These two different pronunciation of the same sound are called allophones. They are supposed to be complementary with each other and may be called the allophones of the phoneme /t/.

In other words it may be said that some allophones are grouped together as one family and this family is called phoneme. Thus, according to Daniel John's, a phoneme is a group of a family of related sounds and the members of this family are called the allophones.


  1. Phonetics and phonology.
  2. Organs of Speech.
  3. Approaches to study of language. Evolution of English language. (To be uploaded soon)
  4. Registers, dialect and style.
  5. Phonemes and allophones.

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