I am currently trying to understand speech perception, and are at the moment a bit stuck.. I seem to understand how the ear process incoming sound, but i don't understand the concept of phones. Why is it a thing?.. The ear isn't exactly coded to interpret phones, and such thing is usually language dependent, so why even bother? I know that there is currently no accurate model of how speech is being perceived, but perceiving based on phones seems incorrect to me, as those are language dependent and not universal...

So my actual question is more... What is the connection between phones and speech perception?.. Why are we trying to link acoustic signal to phones? and why does it somehow determine the human speech perception?

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    I don't have an answer to the question, but re: 'perceiving based on phones seems incorrect to me, as those are language dependent and not universal', we are born with the (universal) ability to differentiate all possible contrasts between phones, but during the process of language acquisition lose the ability to differentiate contrasts absent in our native language. Jul 21, 2017 at 16:58
  • @WavesWashSands An interesting way of perceiving it, and yes i guess you right.. but I still hope somebody has a different view on this. Jul 21, 2017 at 17:04
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    'An interesting way of perceiving it' - Was the pun intended? :P Anyway, you could take a look at this: Kuhl, P. K., Stevens, E., Hayashi, A., Deguchi, T., Kiritani, S., & Iverson, P. (2006). Infants show a facilitation effect for native language phonetic perception between 6 and 12 months. Developmental science, 9(2), F13-F21. Jul 21, 2017 at 17:27
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    "The ear isn't exactly coded to interpret phones" The brain is coded to interpret phonemes though; look into categorical perception.
    – Draconis
    Jul 21, 2017 at 19:10
  • Thanks @Draconis, that looks like something i was looking for.. I guess i can't be discussing categorical perception in forum.. Jul 27, 2017 at 11:44

2 Answers 2


Phones are a "thing" because they were the first decent method of objectively and accurately recording unwritten languages (in the 19th century). Back then, if you heard a Lushootseed speaker translate English "The bear ate the salmon", the standard practice was to guess with untrained English-speaker ears that the person said "Oo uhshluh tube tea skuchicuss uh tea spots". Because tape recorders and even wax cylinder recorders did not exist, there was no decent way to say how the utterance was actually pronounced. "Phones" are simply standardized transcriptional symbols that have a (relatively) fixed meaning in terms of what appropriately-trained people hear (i.e 'ʃʲ' should sound a particular way, no matter what the language is). When you start getting into whether a particular sound is "important" in a language, that is where you get into phonology and "phonemes".

The concept of "phone" became systematic in linguistic practice in the 30's onwards, during a period of methodological frenzy. The idea was that you have to first start by writing down what was actually said (given knowledge of the symbols and competence in distinguishing "ʉ" from "y"), and this is recording in terms of "phones". This is basically the conversion of a continuous physical signal into a discrete symbolic representation. After you've got this reduction of speech to phones, you can analyze the distribution; you will record for English such phones as [t, tʰ, ɾ, t˺, t˟], and yet you notice that these sounds never appear in the same context (as happens with "tie" versus "die"). Thus phones are grouped together into sets: a set of phones that never is the basis for distinguishing utterances (very roughly) is a "phoneme". Choices of phoneme is what makes different words different (in sound). Hence the view that phonemes are about perception.

The main problem with saying that we perceive in terms of phonemes is that this is simply false, or requires a special definition of "perceive". There is a classroom stunt that is often pulled on students in phonetics-phonology classes, where you record a speaker saying "stick", "tick" and "Dick", then edit out the fricative from "stick", and playing the words, ask the students to identify the words. Edited "stick" comes out as "dick". The "explanation" is that English has the phonemes /t,d/ and the phones [t,tʰ,d], and speakers can't "perceive" the phone [t] as distinct from [d], they only perceive the two phonemes.

The flaw in this is that it's task-determined. Speakers can correctly identify edited "stick" as being distinct from "dick", and they can tell if a person uses the "wrong phone" in pronunciation (e.g. saying [stʰɪk]). It's not that we can't perceive low-level predictable details, it's that we disregard them for most especially linguistic purposes. Also, people are able to learn new languages with new sounds, but that would be impossible if you could only perceive the phonemes of your language. You can actual learn that German "bieten" and English "beaten" are pronounced differently albeit quite similarly.

There are, however, quite a number of physical differences which quite literally cannot be detected by people, for example the difference between a tone at 200 Hz and one at 201 Hz. The concept of "phone" may have utility in distinguishing sound-differences which are completely incapable of being linguistically exploited, versus ones that happen to not be exploited in a particular language (like aspiration in English).

If the goal is to do speech recognition on English (or some other well-understood language), then "phones" are completely superfluous. We already know what the range of acoustic variation is going to be for "p", "f" and so on, and we can adjust our programs (database) accordingly. Phones are more important in that first stage of mapping speech to symbols. They continue to be important for quite a while, because we still don't know what a "phoneme" is. For example, we do not know if [ɾ] is a phoneme of English (everybody seems to have their own opinion, there is no scientific consensus).

Here's the bottom line for perception and phones. There is a limit to what kinds of sound differences can be distinguished by humans; there are also limitations where one's prior linguistic knowledge influences you (to perhaps not notice the difference between "bieten" and "beaten"); then there are differences that you really just can't miss, assuming you already know the language. "Phones" are about the middle class of problems, where you can hear that sounds are "somehow different" in a systematic way.

(The Lushootseed example is [ʔuʔəɬətub ti sq'əčqs ʔə ti spaʔc]).


When hearing language, we can distinguish articulations, such as whether the vocal cords are vibrating or the tongue body is lowered in the mouth. A phone is the sound made by a certain state of the articulatory organs -- tongue, lips, vocal cords, and so on. When the sound of a language expression is described as a sequence of phones, this means that it was produced by a succession of changes of the organs of articulation.

We worked out the basics of how this system works over 2500 years ago when the ancient Greeks devised the alphabet, and since then, this way of describing human speech has been elaborated and refined to be more useful for recording the various human languages.

The exact perceptual mechanisms in the ear and brain that allow humans to estimate articulatory changes from acoustic signals is something others could perhaps tell you about. My impression is that much is still unknown.

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