15. More on 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. 

      Think for a minute about what kind of person you believe you are, then think about the many different ways you act and speak, depending on who you are together with. How does the way you talk with a professor differ from the way you talk with your best friend? Your little sister or brother? A department store cashier? Someone of the opposite sex you are interested in?

       You could say that a phoneme is 'you', or what you think you are, and allophones are who you 'become' when you're around each different person in your life. Each one brings out some different aspect of your personality, just as different phonetic environments bring out different 'allophones' of the same phoneme. There are sides of you that you would never show in certain situations, for example, you maybe wouldn't think of being flirtatious when giving a formal speech in front of a big crowd. In spite of all the different faces you show different people, you are still the same you.

       On the previous page, we have already introduced some of the different allophones of /l/. Here we will describe a different set of allophones, one that seems to be seldom mentioned in books. You may have noticed that the vowel in the English -ing ending sounds more like /i/, even though the usual IPA symbol used for the sound is /ɪ/ (and phonemically this is undoubtedly correct, at least for standard American English and RP).

       This phenomenon is part of a larger regular pattern. The tongue height used to produce the 'short' front vowels /ɪ/, /ɛ/, and / is raised when any of these sounds is followed by a voiced velar sound, i.e. /g/ or /ŋ/. The raising seems to be a bit more pronounced before the velar nasal than before the voiced velar stop. The IPA symbol used to indicate raising of the tongue is a tiny inverted 'T' added beneath the vowel in question.

      The reason for this raising is that there are no minimal pairs contrasting /i/ and /ɪ/ before /ŋ/, and very few contrasting them before /g/, so something in between [i] and [ɪ] is used (/i/ and /ɪ/ contrast in pairs like league and ligature [from French], and intrigue [also from French] and trigger, so the absence of phonemic contrast is not complete). This allophonic change does not happen with the voiceless velar stop /k/
or any other sound, before which /i/ and /ɪ/ contrast with each other in many words, like week and wick, reek and Rick. Note that there are no /i/ words to form minimal pairs with wig and wing or rig and ring.

      Listen to the difference in the vowels in each of the following groups of words:

       pick pig pin ping pink   

       peck peg   

       lend length send strength   

       back bag ban bang   

       rack rag ran rang rank   

       Some of these create pronunciation problems for Taiwanese students. In addition to not noticing the higher vowel in words like these, they often substitute an alveolar nasal where there should be a velar nasal. For example, rang will be pronounced ran, bangs as bans, strength as though it were written strenth. Read these words aloud. Do you pronounce them with a velar nasal? Do you use a raised vowel?

      There seems to be this tendency because in Mandarin, front vowels similar to English /æ/ and /ɛ/ can only be followed by an alveolar nasal final /n/, and back vowels with the velar nasal /ŋ/ – note the different vowels used in Mandarin £³ [an] and £µ [ɑŋ]. Or alternatively, a final velar nasal /ŋ/ conditions the occurrence of a back vowel before it, and final alveolar /n/, a front vowel. If you are Chinese, are you following Mandarin instead of English allophonic rules when pronouncing the words in the above paragraph? If you are in doubt about the standard American pronunciation of these or any other words, go to the online Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which includes sound files; for RP or Standard British English pronunciations try howjsay.com. More good dictionaries with audio files: Collins English Dictionary (British) and Cambridge Advanced Learner”¦s Dictionary (British and US English sound files). When it comes to pronunciation, believe your ears before you believe your eyes!

       These examples should give you some idea of the kind of allophonic variation that can occur in English (and Mandarin), but that your teachers or textbook often don't tell you about. Get in the habit of really listening for sounds you may not have learned correctly in school. They may be part of the 'national ESL dialect' of your area, e.g. Taiwan, and may make you feel like you fit in when you are around people who speak like this. But you will notice that native speakers say some of these sounds differently. These are the ones you should really watch out for and imitate in your own speech.

     Addendum (8/02): The topic of i/ɪ allophony in English was discussed over the LINGUIST list in August 2002. Here are links to the archived postings:

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