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The Functional Aspect of Speech Sounds


1. The Phoneme. Allophones of a Phoneme.

2. Aspects of the Phoneme and their Critical Analysis.

3. The Functions of the Phoneme.

4. The Main Problems of Phonological Analysis.


In connected speech a sound is generally modified by its phonetic environment, (i.e. by the neighboring sounds), by the position it occupies in a word or an utterance; it is also modified by prosodic features, such as stress, speech melody, & tempo of speech.

Compare / p / in " pill " (i.e. in initial position), in " spill " (i.e. after /s/), in " slip " (i.e. in final position), in " slipper " (i.e. between vowels). These various / p / sounds differ in manner of articulation or in acoustic qualities. But they don't differ phonologically, if one of the various / p / sounds are substituted for another, the meaning of the word will not change. That’s why for the English speaking people it is of no linguistic importance to discriminate various /p/ sounds. But it is linguistically important for English speakers to discriminate between / p / & / b / (as in " pill " and " bill ") or / p / & / m / (as in " pill" & "mill "), though the differences in their production might not be much more notable than the differences in the production of the various /p/ sounds.

Every language has a limited number of sound types which are shared by all the speakers of the language & are linguistically important bec. they distinguish words in the language. In English there are 20 vowel phonemes & 24 consonant phonemes.

All the actual speech sounds are allophones (or variants) of the phonemes that exist in the language. Those that distinguish words, when opposed to one another in the same phonetic position, are realizations of different phonemes. E.g. / V / & / W / in English are realizations of 2 different phonemes bec. they distinguish such words as " vine" & "wine", "veal" & "wheel " etc.

Those sounds that can not distinguish words in a definite language & occur only in certain positions or in combination w/ certain sounds are realizations of one and the same phoneme, its allophones (or variants). E.g. the "dark" / l /& the " clear " / l / are variants, or allophones of the same phoneme.

Therefore, the phoneme may be defined as the smallest linguistically relevant unit of the sound structure of a given language which serves to distinguish one word from another.

Allophones of a certain phoneme are speech sounds which are realizations of one and the same phoneme & which, therefore, can not distinguish words. Their articulatory & acoustic distinctions are conditioned by their position & their phonetic environment.

On the one hand, the phoneme is an abstraction & a generalization. It is abstracted from its variants that exist in actual speech & is characterized by features that are common to all its variants (e.g. / b / is an occlusive, bilabial, lenis consonant, as these features are common to all its allophones).

On the other hand, the phoneme is material, real & objective, because in speech it is represented by concrete material sounds. In other words, the phoneme exists in speech in the material form of speech sounds.

The phoneme can therefore be regarded as a dialectal unity of its 2 aspects: the material & the abstracted aspects. None of these aspects of the phoneme can be neglected or disregarded. That is the materialistic view of the phoneme.

Some linguists consider the phoneme to be but an abstraction & deny its material character. This viewpoint is expressed by linguists of the Prague Phonological School, for whom a phoneme is but an abstract concept. Other linguists overestimate the material, real & objective character of the phoneme. D. Jones considers a phoneme to be a family of sounds; others consider it to be a class of sounds.

The phoneme has 3 main linguistic functions: the constitutive, the distinctive, & the


indentificatory function. Though the phonemes themselves, in isolation, have no meaning, they are linguistically important, since, in their material form they constitute morphemes, words, all of which are meaningful. Hence, the constitutive function of the phoneme. The phoneme performs the distinctive function, because phonemes distinguish one word from another.

The phoneme has the recognitive function as well, because native speakers identify definite combinations of phonemes as meaningful ling-c units (words, word combinations, or phrases). When identifying linguistic units the use of the right phoneme is not the only significant factor, the use of the right allophone is not much less important.

The phoneme is a linguistically relevant unit that exists in speech in the material form of its allophones. The phoneme is, therefore, a phonological unit which is represented in speech by phonetic units (the speech sounds). In analyzing speech we constantly carry out a phonetic & a phonological analysis. The analysis is primarily phonetic when we describe the articulatory & acoustic characteristics of particular sounds & their combinations; but when we determine the role of those sounds in communication, it is mainly phonological analysis. The main problems of phonological analysis are as follows:

a) the identification of the phonemic inventories for each individual 1-ge;

b) the identification of the inventory of phonologically relevant features of a 1anguage;

c) the interrelationships among the phonemes of a 1-ge.

The 1st problem of phonological analysis is to establish the phonemes in a definite 1-ge. This can be carried out only by phonological analysis based on phonological rules. There are 2 methods to do that: the distributional method & the semantic method.

The distributional method is based on the phonological rule that different ph-ms can freely occur in one and the same position, while allophones of one & the same phoneme occur in different positions and therefore can not be opposed (phonologically) to each other. E.g, " pea"- "bee”, "cap"-"tap", (p-b, k-t etc.) are different phonemes. But one can not find [p] aspirated & [p] non-aspirated in the same phonetic position in English. Therefore in English they are allophones of one & the same phoneme, whereas in Chinese the aspirated & non-aspirated stops are regarded as different phonemes, because they occur in the same phonetic positions.

The distributional method of analysis is a purely formal method of identifying the phonemes of a language. That's why the distributional method of identification of the phonemes in a language works even when one does not know the language at all. The method is widely used by the American linguistics who studies the languages of the Red Indians. But it appears to be complicated & the investigators very often can not do without native speakers to confirm their conclusions concerning the phonemic status of certain speech sounds.

The semantic method, in its turn, is based on the phonological rule that a phoneme can distinguish words when opposed to another phoneme or zero in an identical phonetic position.

The opposition / z / versus / t / is called a phonological opposition. The opposition / z / versus /-/ is called a zero phonological opposition. The pairs of words which differ only in one speech sound are called minimal pairs.

The semantic method of identification of the phonemes in a language attaches great significance to meaning. The investigator studies the function of sounds by collecting minimal pairs of words in the language. If 2 speech sounds distinguish words with different meanings, they form a phonological opposition & are realizations of 2 different phonemes. If not, they are allophones of one & the same phoneme. Thus, it is clearly evident that in English [ s ] & [ t ] are realizations of two different phonemes (sea - tea, so - toe, while [ t ] aspirated & [ t ] non-aspirated are allophones of one & the same phoneme as they can not distinguish words: Such analysis is referred to as "minimal pair test".

But to identify all the phonemes of a 1anguage is not always a simple thing to do. Time & again there emerge difficulties as to the phonemic status of certain sounds. Such difficulties arise when one deals with weakened vowels in unstressed position. It primarily concerns the schwa vowel / ə / in English which occurs only in unstressed position.

The problem is whether there is a schwa vowel / ə / phoneme in English. Scholars are not in agreement on this point. Though / ə / can be opposed only to weakened vowel phonemes, which are partially reduced due to their position in unstressed syllables, it can form phonologica1 oppositions with a number of other phonemes & can distinguish words.

E.g., / ə/ vs /1 / accept-except; armor-army.

/ ə/ vs /ov / temper-tempo; solar-solo.

/ ə/ vs /ə:/ forward - foreword.

It is sometime considered that / ə / is an allophone of / ^ /, because / ^ /is almost exclusively used in stressed syllables as in "comfort" / 'k^mfət /, "abundant" / ə' b ^ ndənt /, whereas / 0 / occurs only in unstressed syllables.

The second problem of phonological analysis is the identification of the inventory of distinctive features on which all the phonological oppositions in the 1anguage are based.

Every sound is characterized by a number of features, not all of which are equally important for communication. If one compares some of the allophones of /p/, it appears that all of them have common features & features which characterize only a few of them. The problem is to decide which of the features of a group of common sounds in a certain 1anguage are phonologically relevant & which of them are irrelevant.

Each phoneme is characterized by a certain number of phonologically relevant features, which are its constant distinctive features.

Each allophones of a certain phoneme is characterized by definite phonologically relevant features (which are common to all its allophones) plus a number of irrelevant features (which distinguish the allophone from all the other allophones of the phoneme).

The phonological relevant features that characterize the phoneme /p / are, therefore, bilabial, occlusive & fortis. Aspiration, plosive ness, labialization, etc. are phonologically irrelevant features.

Phonologically irrelevant doesn't necessarily mean useless for communication. The aspiration of/p/ helps the listener to distinguish it from / b / (as in " pride'-'bride','' " pie-buy "). The substitution of one irrelevant feature for another (say, aspirated for non-aspirated) results in a different allophone of one & the same phoneme ([ p ] aspirated & [ p ] non-aspirated). Such a substitution does not affect communication.


Different Schools in Identifying the Phonemes in "Weak" positions

Once the phonemes of a language are established and their phonologically relevant features are determined, there arises another phonological problem: to describe the interrelationships among the phonemes of a language. Can different phonemes have common allophones?

Can allophones of a phoneme lose any of their phonologically relevant features in certain phonetic positions?

There are 3 views on the problem.

Scholars who support the morphonological viewpoint (A. Avanesov, P. Kuznetsov, A. Reformatsky and others) claim that a phoneme in a "weak" position may lose one of its distinctive /phonologically relevant/ features and therefore lose its distinctive function. For example, Russian voiced consonants lose their voiced character & are pronounced as voiceless in final position (as in "луг" /к/, «глаз» /s/), etc. This leads to the loss of the distinction between /k/ and /g/, or /к-г/ and /c/ and /з/, or / s & z/. Therefore in word final position the phonological oppositions based on the phonologically relevant features «voiced vs voiceless» are neutralized in Russian. Scholars’ term is phenomenon neutralization of phonological oppositions.

Neutralization of phonological oppositions is the loss of a distinctive (phonologically) relevant feature by one of the phonemes of an opposition.

Those who support this view consider that a phoneme is morphemically bound and, therefore in all the derivatives of "луга" (лугов, луг) we deal with the allophones of one and the same phoneme /r/, and in all the derivatives of «лука» (луком, лук) we deal with the allophones of the phoneme /k/.

Consequently, different phonemes may have common allophones and sometimes a sound may be assigned to either of two phonemes. In the case of/k/, it may either be considered an allophone of the phoneme /k/ (as in "лук") or an allophone of the phoneme /r/ (as in "луг).

But the Russian language is the only language in which the phenomenon of neutralization has been examined more or less in depth.

The supporters of the phonological viewpoint (L. V. Scherba, D. Jones, K. Pike and others) reject the notion of «neutralization of phonological oppositions ". They consider that an allophone cannot lose any of its distinctive features. If it does, it becomes an allophone of the phoneme the distinctive features of which it acquires. Thus, /k/ in "луг" is an allophone of/k/, /d/ in "addition" is an allophone of the schwa vowel phoneme /ə/ (and is not an allophone of /аə/, as in "add"; /t/ in "walked" is an allophone of /t/).

The third viewpoint is that of N. Trubetzkoy, R. Jacobson, and some other linguists who consider that there are phonological units higher than a phoneme -the archiphonemes.

The archiphoneme is an abstraction which combines the distinctive features common to two phonemes. According to this viewpoint both /k/ and /r/ in "лук" and "луг" are assigned to the archiphoneme /K/ which is neither voiced, nor voiceless.

We assume that for teaching purposes the most suitable viewpoint is that of L. Scherba and his followers. Accordingly, the phoneme is characterized by definite articulatory and acoustic characteristics and can be easily described as a separate unit of the sound system of language. Whereas the other viewpoints treat the phoneme as a phonological unit which is actually devoid of articulatory and acoustic characteristics, because even its phonologically relevant features appear to be unstable (they can be neutralized). Moreover, the phoneme in that sense embraces sounds that can be assigned to other phonemes as well (the so called "common" allophones). Such an approach hinders the practical application of phonology to teaching pronunciation.

The existence of a number of viewpoints on phonological problems can be explained by the well-known fact that language is too complicated for all its features to be described in terms of any one theory.


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