I'm a not a native speaker and I just begun studying English.

I'm not used to phonetics at all. I know that is has something to do with pronunciation, but I really don't have any idea.

I'll be grateful for any help.

  • 4
    There is a lingists' joke about regarding [h] and [ŋ] as allophones of the same phoneme in English, because they are in complementary distribution, but I don't think anybody has ever advanced this seriously.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


In any language (or most languages, anyway) there are sounds which speakers of some other languages will regard as different, but in the specific language they are regarded as variants of the same sound: usually, most speakers of that language will not even be aware that there is a difference.

A group of sounds which are not distinguished in a language are referred to as a phoneme, and the different realisations of that phoneme are its allophones.

Your example, of [l] and [ɫ], is a case in point: for most English speakers the choice between them is entirely occasioned by the phonetic environment (what sounds come before or after them), though this choice varies for different dialects of English.

The standard test for whether two objectively different sounds are the same phoneme in a language, is to look for oppositions: words in which both occur, and are regarded by the speakers of that language as different sounds.

However, that test is not the whole story. [h] and [ŋ] are not found in contrary opposition, yet are clearly not the same phoneme; the explanation, as Aspinea says, is that in English they are each limited to environments which don't happen to overlap.

An interesting case in English is the dental fricatives, [θ] and [ð]. Many English speakers do not even notice until it is pointed out to them, that these are different sounds (the fact that they are both spelt 'th' often misleads people). They are different phonemes, but there are only a few minimal pairs: "wreath"/"wreathe"; "sooth"/"soothe", and (marginally in the modern language) "thigh"/"thy".

  • 3
    Don't forget "ether" and "either." Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 6:40
  • 2
    Another example are the /ŋg/ in "finger" vs the /ŋ/ in "singer". I had a British friend once who pronounced all such words the former way and he claimed not to be aware other people pronounced them differently. This also happens with morphemes where most English speakers think plurals and third person singular present verbs end in an "s" sound, unaware there there are three variants: /s/, /z/, and /əz/. Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 11:53
  • And then there are languages like Mandarin Chinese where multiple sounds are in complementary distribution, thus allowing multiple analyses. The concepts of phoneme and allophone are not really natural concepts after all, and they fit some languages better than others Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 11:55
  • 1
    @JamesGrossmann: well, they aren't a pair for me ;-)
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:40
  • 1
    @Hippietrail: yes pronouncing /ŋ/ as [ŋg] (even finally) is a characteristic of the North Midlands and the North-West of England. For those dialects you can reasonably say that /ŋ/ isn't a phoneme, but that then requires you to say that "sing" is phonemically /sɪng/, with a different structure from standard English /sɪŋ/
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:44

If I understand your idea of opposition correctly:

[l] and [ɫ] are allophones, which menas they are varieties of the same phoneme. Only two different phonemes can be in opposition with one another.

Here I'm guessing:

[h] is a phoneme you usually find in an onset position; [ŋ] is one you'll usually find in a coda position. Two linguistic entities can't be in opposition unless they turn up in the same place.

  • 1
    Only two different phonemes can be in opposition with one another. - is this true? I'm pretty sure Mandarin Chinese breaks this assumption. Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 3:01

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