I'm not sure if I understood what complementary distribution and defective distribution mean.

I have a definition that complementary distribution is an automatic, i.e. obligatory positional variation of a certain phoneme that always occurs in a certain position. I'm not completely sure what defective distribution is though. I found that defective distribution is when a certain phoneme occurs only in some contexts.

If we take for example that in English, word-initial stops are always aspirated: e.g. pin [pʰ] as opposed to spin [p], then, would this be an example of complementary distribution or defective distribution?

Am I right in thinking this is complementary distribution? It can't be defective distribution since aspirated stops don't occur only word-initially. They can also occur inside words, e.g. potato.

1 Answer 1


Complementary distribution is really mutual defective distribution of a set of sounds. You have complementary distribution if a sound does not appear in a specified environment X. If sound A appears everywhere but context X (defective distribution 1) and B only appears in context X (defective distribution 2), we say that A and B are in complementary distribution. (In your potato example, only the first t is aspirated: the distribution of aspiration is actually not in terms of word position, it's in terms of stress-foot position, but typically the intro linguistic story is that it's only about word-initial vs. elsewhere).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.