1. Please explain the differences to my 15 year old who's reading this book for fun. But these terms are too complicated for her!

  2. The adjective "abstract" is feeling abstract to us! What does "abstract" mean here?

  3. What does "concrete" mean here?

2.1.2 Graphemes and allographs

Since the mid-twentieth century, linguistics has had theoretical terms such as phoneme, phonetic, allophone, morphemic, allomorph, etc. In general, linguists posit an -emic level of more abstract, contrastive units (e.g., phoneme, morpheme) which are realized as contextually determined variants on a more concrete -etic level; e.g., allophone, allomorph. (Appendix A has a discussion of these basic linguistic terms.)

Henry Rogers, Writing Systems (2004), p 10.

-emic /'imIk/. A level of more abstract, contrastive units.
-etic /'ɛtIk/. A level of more concrete, non-contrastive units.

Op. cit., p 292.

  • A concrete noun is anything you can feel or touch like 'wall' or 'cat'. An abstract noun on the other hand, is something you can't touch, and it could be a feeling or idea, like 'sadness' or 'belief'. Commented May 28, 2021 at 11:00
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Relation between some linguistics terms Commented May 28, 2021 at 12:25
  • @Mellifluous No. My post has terms that don't appear in that post.
    – user5306
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 4:35

2 Answers 2


I think for English speakers it's more intuitive to start with allomorphy than with allophony, so here's my stab at it.

In English, the regular plural suffix is realized as either /z/, /s/, or /ɪz/ depending on the last sound of the word stem it attaches to, as in dogs /dɒɡz/, cats /kæts/, and dishes /dɪʃɪz/. To native English speakers, this is nearly automatic. They perceive all of /z/, /s/, and /ɪz/ in this position as a single unit and apply them effortlessly, and they learn how to do so at an early age in childhood even if they weren't taught it explicitly from adults (for learners of English, this isn't so easy). The unit they perceive is a morpheme, and the different forms that manifest consistently after certain sounds are its allomorphs. To the speakers of the language, the unit is obviously a single unit as it serves the same function (that's "abstract"), but objectively /z/, /s/, and /ɪz/ are clearly different sounds (that's "concrete"), and ultimately there's no rhyme or reason it has to be this way. If aliens came down to earth today, no one would be able to explain with logic why the suffix must split into these three forms or why we need such a suffix, when other languages get by without it.

On a lower level, there's the sounds. Did you know that there's hardly any difference between the consonants at the end of course and cores, at least when each is said in isolation? (Record it, isolate the consonant, and play it if you're in doubt.) This is another thing that is so obvious to native speakers it's automatic but that learners of English have hard times with. Here, the difference actually lies in the lengths of the vowels and the consonants are, physically speaking, both [s], but to native speakers it feels as though the difference is /s/ versus /z/. This is again something that is obvious in the psychological reality of the speakers but is fairly random from an objective, physical perspective. /s/ and /z/ (phonemes) are abstract. [s] (a phone, in course an allophone of /s/ and in cores one of /z/) is concrete.


Here's an example which might help.

Consider the sound(s) spelled with the letter T in the following words: toe, stow, pity, hit. Are they the same sound?

On the physical, concrete level, they clearly aren't. The t in toe is pronounced with aspiration -- a puff of air -- which is mostly absent in stow. The t in pity sounds like neither of those, but is flapped (at least for most American English speakers) so that it actually sounds rather like a Spanish r. And the t in hit is usually not released at all, and is often pronounced as a glottal stop, without any contact at all between the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

On a more abstract level, though, these are clearly felt by English speakers as being in some sense "the same sound". This can be shown by the fact that they alternate predictably in words formed from the same root: change hit to hitter and the t becomes a flap.

The first, concrete level is the phonetic level, and the four kinds of t sounds are called allophones. They're notated with square brackets: [tʰ t ɾ ʔ]. The second, more abstract level is the phonological level, and the single abstract t sound that the allophones are all realizations of is called a phoneme. It's notated with slashes: /t/.

Phonemes are "contrastive" whereas allophones are not, because if you replace one allophone with another (for example if you say hit with the t of toe) you don't get a different word, while if you replace one phoneme with another (for example change /t/ in hit to /p/) you get a different word (hip).

Allophones are (at least sometimes) "contextually determined" because the choice between allophones depends on the position of the sound in the word: for example, a word-final t gets pronounced as a glottal stop, a word-initial t gets aspirated, etc.

This is an example from phonology, but as the passage you quote says, there are similar patterns in morphology (word formation). For example, the plural suffix (abstract "morpheme") is realized with different concrete "allomorphs" in different words, e.g. cat-s vs. ox-en.

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