For this exercise, I'm to determine the number of phonemes from a set of phones and then write their allophonic rules for each phoneme

phones: [b], [ɣ], [β], [l], [t], [d], [g]

However, I think I'm confusing myself with the definitions and subsequently am having trouble completing this exercise.

Phones: sounds within a language; e.g. [p] and [b]
Phonemes: sounds that people perceive as different sounds in a language e.g. [t] & [d]
Allophones: variations of a phoneme, e.g. /p/ -> [p̚], [p], or [pʰ] in different phonetic environments

Free variation: a phoneme that can be pronounced differently but will not alter the meaning of the word, e.g. wa[t]er vs wa[ɾ]er

Is this correct?

Then, for instance if

/β/ -> [b] / C_
/β/ -> [β] elsewhere

would that mean β and b are one phoneme with 2 allophones?

  • 5
    It is impossible to determine the number of phonemes in a language by looking at the list of phones only. We also need examples of morphemes/words whith those phones. If by substituting one phone with another the meaning of the word changes, those two phones belong to two different phonemes. If two phones are in the complementary distribution, then they're allophones of the same phoneme, and so on, there're other cases, too. Those 7 phones in your exercise can represent 7 phonemes in one language, but in another languagege they can be allophones of a single phoneme.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 17, 2023 at 8:00
  • hi! I was indeed given a set of words to determine my rules from but I didn't want to post in case of some plagiarism thing. I had a bit of trouble with the rules because there weren't any minimal or near minimal pairs. I pretty much just went off of whether I could predict the sound used, and whether the phones shared in any manner of articulation I mainly wanted to clarify the definitions so that I can structure my answer accordingly
    – Amy
    Sep 17, 2023 at 8:04
  • Then look for instances of complementary distribution. Also, look for word forms — adding an affix can change phones on the morpheme boundary, those that change are allophones. In fact, your question doesnt meet the criteria of our SE guidelines, you'd better edit it and re-formulate, don't mention it's an exercise, just ask what makes phones allophones and what makes them phonemes. Ask specifically about the rules, and remember, you cannot do without words and their meanings in this question.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 17, 2023 at 8:17
  • Also, have a look at the similar questions with answers: linguistics.stackexchange.com/search?q=phoneme+allophone
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 17, 2023 at 8:19
  • Just FYI, a rule that turns /b/ into [β] inter- or postvocalically (with possible variations) is much more common than having /β/ as the phoneme and [b] only as an allophone after consonants. Not to say it can never happens, but while I can think of at least half a dozen languages that have the former, most famously Spanish, I don’t know of any languages that have the latter. Sep 17, 2023 at 9:03

1 Answer 1


I think the first thing you have to "get" to do this is that "phones" refer to actual pronunciation, and "phonemes" refer to the grammatical "starting point" of those phones. For example, English has a phone "m", and very often it comes from a phoneme /m/, but in a few cases it comes from something else, for example /n/ in im-possible (compare il-legal, in-audible). There is a common teaching position that people don't perceive phones, they perceive phonemes, but this is such a vast over-simplification that I argue that it is false and confusing. Therefore I would urge you to not think of phonemes in terms of perception. Instead, phones are the pronounced outputs, and phonemes are the mental symbols that underlie phones.

When a phoneme changes to something else, this is the result of some rule. In English, we generally claim that there is a phoneme /p/ which has three (or more) physical realizations, [p pʰ p̚]. The choice depends on the phonological context (syllable-finally, foot-initially and "elsewhere" which is where you get [p]). There are no cases of underlying /pʰ/ or /p̚/ in English – all instances of [pʰ p̚] are the result of applying a rule (an "allophonic" rule) to the single phoneme /p/.

"Free variation" refers to physical variation that does not come from applying an obligatory phonological rule in some context. Sometimes words just have two pronunciations ([i, ɛ] in the first syllable of "economic"), and this can apply to phrases as well – "Jack is leaving" vs "Jack's leaving". Sociolinguists like to point out that these variants are conditioned by some social feature, like speaker attitude, register, etc. From the phonological perspective, these are "free" i.e. not conditioned by anything in the grammar, they are conditioned by something outside of grammar.

In your example, the question of two phonemes vs. one phoneme has to be answered with reference to the question "do you have both things underlyingly?". We say in English that [pʰ p̚] are not phonemes because every instance of those sounds can be reduced to one phoneme /p/ plus the application of certain rules. But /t/ and /d/ are separate phonemes (there are two phonemes), for reasons that I assume are clear. While we therefore reason that [tʰ t̪ t̚ ɾ ʔ] are all allophones of something and are not phonemes, we can't always determine which phoneme [ɾ] is an allophone of (it can be /t/ or /d/).

FYI, post-consonantal occlusion – β → b / N__ – is very common in Bantu languages.

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