Assume the following example:

In its phoneme set, language X has the vowel /e/ which corresponds to the phone [e], except when followed by /r/, in which case it is realized as the phone [æ].

At the same time, this language has the phonemic vowel /æ/ which gets usually phonetically realized as [æ], except before /r/, where it is realized as [e].

Is there an example of a known language with a pair of phonemes that behave in a similar way? Would such a description even make sense? What could be the reason not to consider such a systematic change a phonological rule?

  • Danish has almost the exact pair you’re describing, though in Danish /e/ and /ɛ/ generally merge as [æ], rather than switching, before /r/ (while /æ/ instead merges with /ɑ/ as [ɑ] in the same position). I can’t think of any instance of ‘switched allophones’, though there’s no reason it couldn’t happen. There could be several reasons why it would make sense to consider it phonological (e.g., if the /r/ was part of a suffix and it was clear from other paradigmatic forms whether the stem ends in /e/ or /æ/). Closest I can think of is the switched Armenian ejectives, but that’s different. Apr 22, 2020 at 14:25

1 Answer 1


Technically, this is not possible, given the meaning of "phoneme", "allophone" and "complementary distribution". When two actual output sounds appears in non-overlapping sets of contexts (complementary distribution), it is often said that they are allophones of a single phoneme, for example [p] and [pʰ] in English do not appear in the same context, and are said to be the allophones of the phoneme /p/. If there were words like [pɔ] "foot" and [pʰɔ] "cloud", the two sounds would not be in complementary distribution, they would be in contrastive distribution, and they are not allophones of a single phoneme.

The situation you describe is like the latter case: you have both [er] and [ær] in surface forms. Clearly, /e/ and /æ/ are distinct phonemes in the language. Therefore, the relationship is not phoneme-to-allophone, it is morphophoneme-to-phoneme. I assume in your example that there is some evidence showing that certain instances of [e] before [r] derive from /æ/, and also that some instances of [æ] before [r] derive from /e/. A paradigm along the following lines could support such a claim: [sæ] "to say", [ser] "says", [se] "to see", [sær] "sees". This does not clearly establish whether non-alternating [pær] "pear" is /per/ or /pær/. The characteristic of this rule is that there is a feature-exchange where [αX] becomes [–αX] in some context.

This is a topic that has been touched on in the history of generative phonology, because such a situation would motivate "minus-alpha" rules that swap feature values. What is crucial is that the two cases have to be applied simultaneously (if there are two separate rules +X→–X and –X→+X, there will be merger of outputs no matter what the order of the rules is). A handful of examples have been posited over the past 50+ years, and none of them have survived scrutiny. For example there is an infamous length-switching rule for plurals in Dinka from Gleason's workbook where long vowels become short and short vowels become long, but the actual situation is that single-plural forms involve dozens of random changes and you just have to memorize which change gives you the plural. SPE makes a claim for Austrian German which basically take standard German as the input and computes the Austrian pronunciation from that (i.e. lacks any synchronic basis). The English Vowel Shift rule has that character, at least in the way that the rule is envisioned in The Sound Pattern of English (but it is a highly controversial claim to say that there is such a rule in English phonology).

Robust, internally-motivated examples of swapping rules do not exist in the literature. One explanation for that gap is based on learning, that it would be too hard to learn and instead you should just learn that [pær] is /pær/. But my mini-paradigm above establishes that the fact patterns could indeed lead one to learn such a relationship. A formal explanation for the lack of such swappings is, as hinted at above, the consequence of ordering – no single rule can do it, and any ordering of rules gives you neutralization. But of course you have to have a particular theory of rules beyond simply stating underlying-surface mappings.

  • 1
    Part of the reason is presumably that phonological rules aren't random but tend to be phonetically motivated, and it's unlikely there would be phonetic reasons for both process X and its opposite. | I'm not quite following your reasoning about why this isn't allophony. True, [ser] / [sær] shows the sounds can appear in the same environment so aren't allophones of one phoneme, but we're already told that those particular [e] and [æ] are from different phonemes. If there's evidence for an allophony rule /e/ > [æ] /_r and independently for another rule /æ/ > [e]_r, why not say this is allophony?
    – TKR
    Apr 22, 2020 at 17:49
  • The point is exactly that this is not a case of allophony, given what allophony means. The OP talks about it as though this is allophony, but it isn't: I'm correcting that error. If you understand that by definition this isn't allophony, then how can there be evidence that that this is allophony? That is, I don't understand what it is that you don't understand. What do you think "allophony" means?
    – user6726
    Apr 22, 2020 at 18:13
  • 1
    If you encounter X and Y in the same environment, you can conclude that the X and Y you're looking it don't represent the same phoneme. But that doesn't rule out that the same phones X and Y could participate in some allophony pattern. Say we have (1) /b/ > [p] and (2) /p/ > [pʰ] in the same environment; you could find minimal pairs with [p] vs. [pʰ], but that doesn't conflict with [p] and [pʰ] being allophones of /p/ as per (2). Or would you not describe that as allophony?
    – TKR
    Apr 22, 2020 at 18:30
  • I also don’t understand your reasons for saying this is not allophony. If a particular phoneme consistently appears as a particular, different phone in a particular context, that is a pretty textbook example of allophony to me, regardless of whether either or both of the phones involved are also involved in different allophony patterns. Apr 23, 2020 at 15:42
  • Do you agree that "allophone" is an analytic relationship between pronounced phones, a partitioning of the surface sounds into non-overlapping sets where set A appears exclusively in environment X and set B appears exclusively outside of environment X ("in complementary distribution")? This is the core of what distinguishes "underlying form" from "phoneme": "phoneme" is a distributional fact about outputs.
    – user6726
    Apr 23, 2020 at 16:12

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