Might seem like a stupid question but I'm rather confused right now! :) Also if anyone has any answers to the following...

Consider these phonetic forms of Hebrew words:

[v] – [b]

bika ‘lamented’

mugbal ‘limited’

ʃavar ‘broke’ (masc.)

ʃavra ‘broke’ (fem.)

ʔikev ‘delayed’

bara ‘created’

[f] – [p]

litef ‘stroked’

sefer ‘book’

sataf ‘washed’

para ‘cow’

ʔmitpaxat ‘handkerchief’

haʔalpim ‘the Alps’

Assume that these words and their phonetic sequences are representative of what may occur in Hebrew. In your answer, consider classes of sounds rather than individual sounds. a) Are [b] and [v] allophones of one phoneme? Are they in complementary distribution? In what phonetic environments do they occur? Can you formulate a phonological rule stating their distribution? b) Does the same rule, or lack of a rule, that describes the distribution of [b] and [v] apply to [p] and [f]? If not, why not?

Here is the rest of the question, if anyone wants to help out!

c) Here is a word with one phone missing. A blank appears in place of the missing sound: hid___ik. Select the correct statement from the list below: 1. [b] but not [v] could occur in the empty slot. 2. [v] but not [b] could occur in the empty slot. 3. Either [b] or [v] could occur in the empty slot. 4. Neither [b] nor [v] could occur in the empty slot. d) Which of the following statements is correct about the incomplete word ___ana? 1. [f] but not [p] could occur in the empty slot. 2. [p] but not [f] could occur in the empty slot. 3. Either [p] or [f] could fill the blank. 4. Neither [p] nor [f] could fill the blank. e) Now consider the following possible words (in phonetic transcription): laval surva labal palar falu razif If these words actually occurred in Hebrew, would they: 1. Force you to revise the conclusions about the distribution of labial stops and fricatives you reached on the basis of the first group of words given above? 2. Support your original conclusions? 3. Neither support nor disprove your original conclusions?

  • 2
    That's a well-known fact that in Hebrew labial stops [b] and [p] appear at the beginning of words and after consonants, and labial fricatives [v] and [f] elsewhere. What you ask looks like a linguistic problem from a textbook. The 12 Hebrew words you give in the beginning are insufficient to answer to a) for a person who doesn't know all the Hebrew words that exist, but knowing the rule you can easily answer the rest of the questions. Your question is lacking context, so it looks rather language-specific.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 2:30
  • 4
    Seems like a "Do my homework for me" question.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 4:58
  • @dainichi: Maybe, but it also seems interesting (-: Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 14:00
  • Good linguistic homework problems are interesting.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 13, 2014 at 16:02

2 Answers 2


In classical (Biblical) Hebrew there was indeed a complementary distribution between hard /p, b, t, d, k, g/ and their soft allophones. For example, post-vocalic [f] is in complementary distribution with post-vocalic geminated [pp] and with initial and post-consonantal [p]. In modern (Israeli) Hebrew gemination is lost, so /p/ < -pp and /f/ < -f are separate phonemes. Also, in initial position modern Hebrew has /f/ in loanwords, contrasting with /p/ in native words.

  • 3
    Also, in modern Hebrew, there are two historically different /v/'s, only one of which is an allophone of /b/. But since it is now phonetically indistinguishable from the other /v/ (from original /w/) a synchronic treatment must regard these two as a single phoneme distinct from /b/.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 16, 2014 at 16:41

Regarding the title question, "Is it possible to have an underlying phoneme in complementary distribution?", the answer is yes. An example would be /ŋ/ vs /h/ in English. They never occur in the same environment since /ŋ/ only occurs at the end of syllables and /h/ only occurs at the beginning, but there is a different phoneme underlying each.

  • Why then does this not prove that these are allophones of a single phoneme "heng"?
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 4:47
  • 2
    They're not phonetically similar, though that's the extent of my knowledge. I don't know how phonologists determine phonetic similarity, though I suppose one is unvoiced, the other is voiced; one is a nasal, the other is not; one is glottal and the other is velar; etc.
    – awe lotta
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 16:43
  • 1
    They are acoustically similar, and there is a name for associated alternations in languages: rhinoglottophilia. BTW your distributional generalization is wrong: Birmiŋham, ahoy.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 16:51

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