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What is the difference between a phoneme and an allophone?

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lola21 | Middle School Teacher | eNoter

Posted November 13, 2008 at 12:31 AM via web

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What is the difference between a phoneme and an allophone?

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted November 13, 2008 at 12:48 AM (Answer #1)

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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.

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