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English Structures


Pages: 1, 2, 3 Moodle TESL 551: Crowley   Houts-Smith





Phonemes and Allophones

Why is there often a difference between what we think we say and what we actually say?

What makes us aspirate the /t/ in taffy but not in staff?

The answer is the environment that the sound is in.

Allophones are variant forms of pronunciation of a phoneme that occur because of the phonological environment.

Phonological rules describe the regular changes that phonemes undergo in certain environments.

Phonological Environment

The phonological environment is a description of the other sounds that surround a particular sound.

The other surrounding sounds are described in the same ways we have already learned in discussing phonetics: voicing, place, and manner of articulation.

By studying many examples of words with the phoneme /p/ and the phoneme /t/, linguists have discovered the key to what makes native speakers aspirate the /p/ in pay or the /t/ in taffy.

We can do the same analysis:

  • We can put the phoneme /p/ in as many different environments as possible.
  • We can place /p/ at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and at the end of a word.
  • We can have native speakers say the words, and note if there is aspiration or not.

Activity: Environment for Aspiration

Hold a sheet of paper loosely in front of your mouth as you say each of these words out loud. Notice the movement of the paper when the /p/ is aspirated.


  • Peat, pit, pay, pet, pat, pot, pore, put, poodle


  • Reaper, zipper, caper, leper, dapper, copper, roper, upper, super


  • Reap, zip, ape, hep, cap, hop, hope, whoop, scoop
When did you aspirate the /p/? According to research, it would have been:
Always when it was the first sound in the word.  
  Sometimes in the middle.  
    Never at the end.

Further analysis of the the aspiration in the middle of words would leads to the conclusion that it also correlates with stress on the syllable.

Aspirating the /p/ helps give prominence to the syllable and to create the stress.

So the purpose of aspirating the /p/ has nothing to do with the meaning of the word, it’s about clarity of pronunciation only.

Phonological Processes

Aspiration is a phonological process that we use in English to alter the sound of /p/ and other voiceless stops.

Alterations are often made in order to make the words easier for the speaker to articulate, or for the listener to hear, and as a result, are considered more efficient.

Not producing the proper phoneme creates meaning problems for ELLs. Not using the proper phonological rules allows accents to persist. The phonological rules tell what change to make to which sounds in which situation.

So aspiration is a process of adding an extra puff of air to a sound.

The aspiration rule in English says to aspirate (process) voiceless stops (sounds) at the beginnings of stressed syllables (environment).
In Assimilation one speech segment influences another and makes it similar to itself

Assimilation is what we notice with the word train. Repeat train out loud a few times. Notice the movement and position of your tongue and lips.

  • The lip rounding of /ɹ/ is usually included in the pronunciation of the /t/ before it.
  • This is anticipatory assimilation because a speaker assimilates the next sound and makes the one just before it similar to the following one.

The opposite can happen too, where a speaker carries one feature of one sound over to the next sound in the word.

  • This is called perseveratory assimilation.
  • One example is the word please. For some speakers, the voiceless feature of [p] perseveres longer, carrying over to the /l/ and making it voiceless, too.


Nasalization is a particular kind of anticipatory assimilation. Nasalization occurs when an upcoming nasal affects the sound, usually a vowel, just before it. In English we anticipate nasals, usually vowels.


Dissimilation happens when a sound segment is changed to make it less like an adjacent segment.

  • In the English words fifth and sixth, the last two sounds are both fricatives: [fɪfθ] and [sɪksθ].
  • Fifth ends with a voiceless labiodental fricative followed by a voiceless interdental fricative.
  • Sixth ends with a voiceless alveopalatal fricative followed by a voiceless interdental fricative.
  • Some native speakers of English change the final sound segment from a fricative to a stop, saying [fɪft] instead of [fɪfθ] and [sɪkst] instead of [sɪksθ].


In deletion a sound segment is removed from a word.

  • Some speakers of English delete the final /ɹ/ on words like dinner and the medial /ə/ in family.
  • The final /b/ on some words is deleted after an /m/, but remains when there is a following syllable. Examples:
    • crumb-crumble
    • bomb-bombard

Sometimes deletion is the end result over time of either assimilation or dissimilation. If a sound is made more like an adjacent sound, it might eventually simply become that sound. If a sound is made so different from another sound, it might be removed altogether since no sound at all is the most different from having a sound!

Vowel Reduction

Sometimes a sound doesn’t disappear completely. It might simply be reduced. In the process of vowel reduction a vowel segment is articulated with a more centralized tongue positionthan normal.

  • The word maintain is pronounced [men 'ten]
  • But the related word maintenance is pronounced ['men tən əns]
  • When the stress shifted, the vowel /e/ was reduced to a central vowel, schwa [ə].


In the process of epenthesis a sound segment is added.

  • When children are pleading with their parents, they often say [pə liz] instead of [pɫiz] for the word please, adding an extra vowel between the /p/ and /l/.


Metathesis occurs when sound segments are reordered.

  • Some English speakers say [aks] instead of [ask].


The process of flapping changes a stop (or trill) to a flap

  • In English /t/ becomes /ɾ/ between two vowels, like in water [waɾəɹ].
  • In Spanish, the trill /r/ becomes a flap in the name Maria.
These phonological processes can be used in combinations. For example:

President Bush is famous for saying [nu.kjə.ləɹ] instead of [nu.kli.əɹ].


This pronunciation change, [nu.kjə.ləɹ] instead of [nu.kli.əɹ], contains three different processes:

      • Metathesis of the /l/ and /i/
      • Epenthesis of palatal glide [j]
      • Reduction of [i] to [ə]

Teaching Language

It is necessary to teach the phonological processes of English as well as the phonemes. Some are harder than others.

Try to separate problems with phonemes from problems with phonological processes as you diagnose pronunciation problems: one relates directly to meaning, the other to accent.

Accent doesn’t show proficiency or a lack or proficientcy, just how “young” they were when they learned the language.

The kinds of lessons for processes and phonemes will be similar:

  • You will explain and demonstrate the sound and how to produce it.
  • When teaching a process, watch for students using it all the time instead of in certain situations.
  • For example, when teaching flapping of /t/ the key is that it happens between vowels, not just in the middle of words.
    • We use a flap for water [waɾəɹ], but not for button, where we usually use a glottal stop instead [bʌʔn].
Continue with Part 3




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