I initially thought that it was because allophones happened in the physical world in place of phonemes, that couldn't, but that proved to be wrong when I read this:

"The segment [pʰ] is an allophonic variant of the phoneme /p/, reason why in a phonemic transcription the word pin is written as [pɪn] and not [pʰɪn]" - Gussenhoven & Jacobs (2011: 131)

The authors seem to insinuate [p] is not an allophone itself but something else and I don't get why.

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    I see no distinction at all between the terms "allophone" and "allophonic variant". I think they are synonymous.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:48
  • I agree with Colin Fine. Maybe the term "allophinic variant" is preferably used to refer to allophones that are more secondary (in contrast to those allophones which are the phonetic correspondence to the underlying phoneme: here [p] corresponding to /p/), but the main point seems to be that "[pʰ] is an allophonic variant of the phoneme /p/" is no contradition to "[p] is an allophone of the phoneme /p/". Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:53
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    I think since the authors consider are calling the phoneme /p/, then they won't say that [p] again is an "allophonic variant" of itself... but when you look at [p] and [pʰ], they are in fact both allophones of the phoneme /p/. It just sounds a little silly to say that X is an allophone of X, even though when it's [X] vs /X/, it would make sense to say it.
    – LjL
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:37

5 Answers 5


A phoneme is an abstract entity deduced from the distribution of phones (actual sounds) in a language. It is typically transcribed with the symbol that represents the most common sound (allophone) of that phoneme, or rather the one that represents the "intersection" of the features the phoneme is considered to have in the present analysis. The second clause of the current Principles of the IPA reads:

The IPA is designed to be a set of symbols for representing all the possible sounds of the world's languages. The representation of these sounds uses a set of phonetic categories which describe how each sound is made. These categories define a number of natural classes of sounds that operate in phonological rules and historical sound changes. The symbols of the IPA are shorthand ways of indicating certain intersections of these categories. Thus [p] is a shorthand way of designating the intersection of the categories voiceless, bilabial, and plosive; [m] is the intersection of the categories voiced, bilabial, and nasal; and so on. The sounds that are represented by the symbols are primarily those that serve to distinguish one word from another in a language.

So each letter of the IPA represents not a rigidly defined set of articulatory configurations (because there are theoretically infinite shades of sounds between each category) but an abstract class of sounds, which may then be applied to represent an actual sound, or at least a narrower set of sounds, for more physically oriented purposes.

In English, [p] and [pʰ] are co-allophones of the phoneme /p/ (that is, no pair of words are found to be different just in [p] vs. [pʰ]). The letter 〈p〉 is chosen for the phonemic representation because aspiration or lack thereof is not distinctive in English, and therefore the categories "voiceless", "bilabial" and "plosive" are considered enough to identify these sounds, which make up a category of mutually non-distinctive sounds, i.e. a phoneme. And since writing e.g. "voiceless bilabial plosive + high front lax vowel + alveolar nasal" to phonemically represent the word pin each time takes considerable time and space, we write /pɪn/ as a shorthand for that.


The easiest way to think of allophones is as different variants of phonetically realizing the same underlying phoneme, so you are right in saying that "allophones happn in the physical world in place of phonemes". The text doesn't contradict this. /p/ is a phoneme with two allophonic variants: [p] and [pʰ] - [p] it itself an allophone of the phoneme /p/; your conclusion that this were not the case is incorrect. The point that probably gets you stuck is that term "allophonic variant" might suggest that only alternative realizations and not the underlying phone itself are considered, but this is not the case: "allophone" is to be understood to include the phone that corresponding to the underlying phoneme (i.e. the phone [p] is among the allophonic variants of the phoneme /p/).
The point that the authors are trying to make is that [pʰ] is more of a secondary varaint and the more basic realization is [p], which is why /p/ is declared to be the underlying phoneme rather than /pʰ/; what is the underlying form is usually determined by which of the possible realizations is the most frequent one, or the one that involves the least complexity of phonological rules. In English, the more common realization to /p/ happens to be [p], which is why we take /p/ and not /pʰ/ as the underyling phoneme, and consequently why < pin > is transcribed as [pɪn] and not as [pʰɪn]. But that [p] is the default realization while [pʰ] is a variant of it doesn't mean that [p] isn't an allophone of /p/ as well.

  • [pʰ] is clearly the primary variant of /p/ because unaspirated [p] is (nearly) neutralized with /b/ at the beginning of stressed syllables. It's just that we use /p/ because aspiration is not distinctive in English, and so there's no need to mark it in every instance.
    – Nardog
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:48
  • As you say: at the beginning of stressed syllables. I'm pretty sure [p] is overall (abstracting away from specific occurence contexts) the more common realization and thus indeed the primary variant. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:50
  • I don't see how this contradicts my answer. Clearly aspiration doesn't define /p/ - otherwise, [p] and [pʰ] would not be allophones to the same phoneme, but define distinct phonemes. Neither does the fact that [p] might be an allophonic realization of /b/ contradict my claim that [p] is the default realization of /p/. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:12
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    I just don't see how [pʰ] is a secondary variant to [p]. The absence of aspiration is not a defining feature of /p/, so the presence of aspiration in [pʰ] doesn't make it any less "basic". Even if English aspirated /p/ in all positions possible and always voiced /b/ throughout, we would be phonemicizing [pʰ] as /p/ - because it's not distinctive.
    – Nardog
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:34
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    I agree with @Nardog: I don't think we write /p/ because [pʰ] is less common than [p], but because we consider the voiceless/voiceless distinction to be more primary than the unaspirated/aspirated distinction, and so we transcribe /p/ and /b/ instead of, for example, /pʰ/ and /p/ respectively (one reason to do this is that non-plosives still have a voicing distinction, but no aspiration distinction). Additionally, /p/ is just more expedient to write than /pʰ/, and phonemic representations tend to choose more basic symbols.
    – LjL
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 22:31

I suggest reading the text of Gussenhoven & Jacobs (2011: 131)

If you look up the pronunciation of a word in a dictionary, you will find it is normally given in phonemic transcription. In this type of transcription, an English word like pin is transcribed [pɪn], not [pʰɪn]. This is because the segment [pʰ] is an allophonic variant of the phoneme /p/, and as such has no place in a phonemic transcription. Clearly, the dictionary’s phonemic transcription defines a level of representation which is more abstract than the surface level.

Both [p] and [pʰ] are allophonic variants of /p/. [pʰ] is not a variant of [p], nor the converse. The original text is clear enough, as far as I can see.

  • [pʰ] may not be a variant of [p], nor the converse, but the authors do say that is /p/ instead of /pʰ/ simply because [pʰ] is an allophonic variation of /p/. That's not the reason, it's /p/ due to the reasons the other users have pointed out below. Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 2:06
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    I assume the OP was confused by a) the square brackets enclosing the (theoretical) phonemic transcriptions and b) that they said that [pʰ] is an allophonic variant of the phoneme /p/, but did not simultaneously mention the fact that [p] is also an allophonic variant of /p/. I agree with user6726 in that the context makes it clear, but apparently it didn't for the OP.
    – Nardog
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 2:35

The environment in which a phoneme occurs in, can affect the audible realisation of it. An allophone is a variation of a phoneme that has been conditioned by its environment. For example: /s/ is realised as [z] when in comes after a voiced sound. Take for example the word {Car}. In its plural form it is pronounced {carz} In the word {pits}, there's no [z] sound


S--> [s]/[-voice]__


Both allophones do not encroach on the work of the other. /s/ will always be [s] when it comes after a voiceless phoneme and /s/ will always be pronounced as [z] when it comes after voiced phonemes.

Because they occur in mutually exclusive environments, they are in complementary distribution and are therefore, allophones of the same phoneme. Much like Jack Spratt and his wife... He could eat no fat, and she could eat no lean, but together they lick the platter clean. 😁😁😁

  • This is confusing allophones and allomorphs. /s/ (as [s]) occurs after voiced sounds all the time.
    – Nardog
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 14:23

I may be wrong, but I think it was an error. The right sentence is probably "...reason why in a phonemic transcription the word pin is written as /pɪn/ and not /pʰɪn/".

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    The text is not wrong. Just because a transcription is enclosed in square brackets doesn't mean it's not phonemic - the narrowness of a phonetic transcription can range from impressionistic (transcribing every possible configurations) to systematic (which may then be divided into allophonic, phonemic, etc.). See IPA Handbook pp. 28-30.
    – Nardog
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 20:08
  • I see! Thank you, Nardog! I was wrong in the end hahah Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:24
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    What's the point of using a transcription enclosed in slashes, then? (And if it's for specifically "declaring" a phonemic transcription, then why would one want to use square brackets when they're specifically talking about phonemes?)
    – LjL
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 22:35
  • @LjL That sounds like an interesting question to ask the community by itself... In a nutshell, though, in brackets an author can freely choose the amount/kinds of information to include in the transcription, where as in slashes each letter is explicitly marked as representing a phoneme - each has its advantages. IPA Handbook explains this really well. Also note that the use of slashes to denote phonemicity is a relatively recent invention.
    – Nardog
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:07
  • I see Nardog, so the problem was only the poor writing of the authors. Truly, if both aspirated and non-aspirated p-sounds are allophonic variants of /p/, then it really doesn't make sense (even if there isn't contradiction) to say that we write /p/ because one of these variants is a variant, it's half of an explanation only. Now just one more question: why can the act or choosing a symbol over another to represent a phoneme may make easier to formulate a phonological rule? That gained easyness in rule formation was proposed in another book I read but didn't understand it either. Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 1:04

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