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What is the difference between a phoneme and an allophone?

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What is the difference between a phoneme and an allophone?

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robertwilliam's profile pic

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A phoneme is a unit of sound in a language that cannot be analysed into smaller linear units and that can distinguish one word from another.

Phonemes are often presented surrounded by // in transcription (e.g. /p/ and /b/ in English pat, bat).

So /p/ and /b/ are two phonemes because they can distinguish between the words "pat" and "bat". /c/ is another, because it distinguishes the word "cat" from "pat" and "bat".

Allophones are any of the variants making up a single phoneme.

So, for example, you might pronounce the letter "T" differently in the two words "stand" and "tip". A common test to determine whether two phones are allophones or separate phonemes relies on finding minimal pairs: words that differ by only the phones in question. For example, the words tip and dip illustrate that [t] and [d] are separate phonemes, /t/ and /d/, in English.

bmrasmussen's profile pic

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A phoneme is a distinct sound in speech.  They are often indicated with slash marks around them, like this:  /p/  Phonemes go together to make up words.  For example, /p/ + /a/ + /n/ = pan.  If changing one of the sounds will make the word have a different meaning, that sound is a phoneme.  For example, changing the /n/ to /t/ would make the word "pan" change into "pat", a word with a completely different meaning.  

Allophones are slight variations on specific phonemes.  They are often not noticeable in everyday speech unless you are listening for them.  Allophones are often responsible for different accents and manners of speech.  For example, you could say the word "stop" with an explosive little puff of air at the end, as when someone is exasperated.  Or you could say it by simply closing your lips on the p and not releasing any air, as when someone is impatient and snapping at someone else.  In either case, the phoneme has not changed - it is still a /p/, and the word meaning is still the same.  Each slight variations in how the /p/ is expressed would be called an allophone.

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