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Phoneme and Allophone

A phoneme is a mental entity of a set of speech sounds identified by a native speaker as the same sound whereas allophones are that set of speech sounds realizing that mental entity. This definition tells us:

  • A speaker utters allophones rather than phonemes.
  • There is a one-to-many mapping relation between phoneme and allophones.
  • Replacing one allophone with another of the same phoneme does not result in change of meaning, only in foreign accent. In phonology literature, this is described as different allophones of the same phoneme being nondistinctive.

Following the phonetic transcription convention, phonemes are put inside two slashes / / while allophones are enclosed in square brackets [ ].

A concrete example is in place to help understand phoneme and allophone. If I say the English voiceless alveolar stop consonant, I mean the /t/ phoneme. If I say the /t/ consonant is pronounced with aspiration in top, with no aspiration in stop, and with flapping in city, I mean the allophones of /t/.

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