14. Phonemes and Allophones

      Note: Make sure that you have the Lucida Sans Unicode font installed in your computer so that the IPA symbols will display correctly.    

     'Phonemes' (written between slashes, e.g. /i/) and 'allophones' (written between brackets, e.g.[i]) are two of the most basic and important concepts in phonetics and phonology. You have already been introduced to them in Ladefoged; go through this excellent slide show by Andrew Carnie from the University of Arizona for a review and further material:


     If you're in a hurry, here's a concise overview from Pétur Knútsson at the University of Iceland (you can link to other related pages from here):


     We've mentioned in class that the English phoneme /l/ has a number of allophones: the clear 'l' [l], which is a voiced lateral alveolar approximant, as in leap [lip] V this is the usual allophone of /l/ before the vowel nucleus in a syllable; voiceless as in play , the usual allophone of
after a voiceless obstruent; and velarized 'dark l' [ɫ] as in pool [puɫ], the usual allophone of /l/ after the vowel nucleus of a syllable. Compare these three allophones of /l/:

leap play pool

     Sometimes there is no contact between the tongue tip and alveolar ridge in the American English dark 'l', and the quality of this sound is due mainly to the velarization. Chinese can try to produce a Beijing-accented j e4 (the IPA symbol is [ɤ]) to get an idea of what velarization involves. Notice the tensing of the muscles in the back of your tongue.

j e4

      Native speakers of any language generally apply the correct allophone in each context without even being aware of the different forms they are using. English spelling, among other things, leads us to assume that everything written with an 'l' is pronounced in the same way V except for when the 'l' is silent, as in words like half and salmon, and for some people, palm and almond (I personally have a dark 'l' in these last two examples, demonstrated in the second reading of the two words):

half salmon palm almond

palm almond  

      Foreigners learning to speak English are often not told about these allophonic differences, and this is probably one cause of certain faulty pronunciations.

     Some Taiwan speakers of English do not devoice the /l/ in words like play and in the process end up adding an epenthetic ('extra') schwa [ə] in such environments: they may say [pʰəleɪ] instead of . Listen to the difference:


     Taiwan learners of English typically substitute [o] for the English dark 'l', e.g. [pipo] for 'people', [pɛnso] for 'pencil'.

people pencil

     Note that a postvocalic /l/ does not have to be 'dark' or velarized in every language. German uses a clear 'l' in all positions. Examples: Licht 'light', Dill 'dill':

Licht Dill

      In order to hear just how different a clear 'l' is from a dark 'l', listen to the following two sound files. The first is a recording of the word lull, which has both a clear and a dark
/l/. The second file is the same word played backwards. You might think that a word spelled lull would sound the same backwards as forwards. But reversing the positions of the clear and dark 'l' makes the word almost unrecognizable. Putting a dark 'l' at the beginning of a word or syllable sounds very odd in English! (Of course, one reason it sounds so odd is because of the reversed falling V i.e. rising V intonation.)

lull     llul

     You can create sound files then play them backwards with Praat, if you'd like to try it yourself:


     Standard American English tends to use dark 'l' in more environments than Standard Southern British English (RP; 'received pronunciation'). The /l/ in play, for example, may sometimes be velarized by some American speakers; it would invariably be a clear 'l' in RP. Here is a recording of play first with a clear 'l', then with a dark 'l'.

play (clear) play (dark)

     There are other allophones of /l/, depending mainly on the point of articulation of the sound(s) following it. The /l/ in filth, for example, may be a dental [l̪]; or it may also just be a plain dark /l/.

Next: More on phonemes and allophones

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