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Phonemes and Allophones Relationship


In phonology, there are three levels – the phoneme, the allophone, and the phone. One could if one wanted to gloss over things, give the problem of how phones are categorized into allophones to phonetics and give the problem of how allophones are grouped into phonemes to phonology.


Basic phonology begins with a classical distinction between phonemes and allophones. In the classical structuralize sense, phonemes belong to the domain of language (the phonological system), while allophones belong to the domain of parole, they are the actual phonetic realizations of the phoneme. By the different speakers of the language, every phoneme that is uttered is somewhat different, so we would have to say that there is an infinite number of allophones of the phonemes. Usually one only says that there is one allophone- probably because all the realizations are considered in someway similar.

Definitions of phoneme and allophone

Phoneme: A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.

Allophones: an allophone is a phonetic variant of a phoneme in a particular language.

Example- (p) and (pH) are the allophones of the phoneme (P) in English.

While (p) and (pH) are the different phonemes in Hindi.

Relation between phonemes and allophones

Phones should be classified as phonemes versus allophones based on the following points;

  • Their contribution to communication (phoneme versus allophone)
  • The specific primary distinctive versus secondary nondistinctive articulator and acoustic features.
  • The relative non-predictability of the distribution of phonemes in minimal pairs (the communication factor) versus predictability of the complimentary distribution of allophones (the human factor).

The systematic interchangeability of phonemes and allophones across the languages and within the same language in different periods of time should be stressed and illustrated from the points of view of the communication and human factor. The fact that all languages have a similar number of phonemes (usually 20-40) which are acquired in a similar order across languages and they are diachronic versus synchronic relationship to alphabet systems and human factors. The asymmetric relationship between the number of phonemes versus the number of allophones in the language system and our awareness of the former versus the latter should be studied from the synergetic point of view of maximum communication with minimal effort.

Though predictable, differences in pronunciation between different occurrences of the same allophones, and the larger differences.

recognized as allophonic variation (differences that distinguish allophones from each other). If so, co-articulation is not the word to use to describe the minor differences. There is no term for this notion because there is clearly a gradient. Whether we recognize two physical occurrences as two occurrences of the same allophone or as occurrences of different allophones is not a question that has a definite answer. That is, the border between phonetics and phonology is not clearly defined.

Phonemes and allophones in Beijing mandarin and Cantonese

Effect of phonemic versus allophonic distribution, stress, and direction of co-articulation on a vowel to vowel co-articulation was studied in Cantonese and Beijing Mandarin. Cantonese has more vowel phonemes but Beijing Mandarin has more allophones. The number of the phonemic vowel in Cantonese is controversial for Beijing Mandarin. The reason for the controversy is that syllable structure and systematic relationships between different segments are important in Chinese.

The main controversy in Cantonese phonemic vowels lies in the distinction of vowel length. Phonetically there are 7 long, 7half long, and 4 short distinctive vowels in Cantonese. Most analyses, however, treat length as a redundant allophonic feature in Cantonese, because for except (a) and (å), all short and half-long vowels are in complementary distribution with their long counterparts. Thus, Cantonese is usually said to have eight phonemic vowels.

The analysis of the vowel system of Beijing Mandarin is yet more controversial. Most analyses agree that (i y u) are all phonemic, but with many distinct allophones. But there is little agreement about the mid vowels, where many qualities are found. The quality used depends on the overall structure of the syllable. Although phonetically very distinct, the distribution of the mid vowels is clearly complementary. The most convincing proposal is thus that there is an unspecified mid vowel phoneme. Stress in Chinese is primarily cued by longer duration and secondarily by more extended pitch range and a complete pitch contour. Amplitude is the least important cue.

Unstressed vowel qualities are not systematically reduced, unlike English. Most studies showing larger co-articulator effects on unstressed than stressed vowels were based on English and other nontonal languages in which pitch is an important indicator of stress. Stress may not have the same effect in Chinese.


Cantonese and Beijing Mandarin did not differ from each other either overall or in interaction with other factors, despite their difference in the number of phonemic vowels. In fact, Shona an African language with just five vowels also did not co-articulate more than English (five). Manual’s proposal may work well for languages in which phonemic analysis can account for the entire vowel system, as long as the number of phonemes bears a simple relationship with the number of allophones. But this means that in essence, the crucial factor is the number of phonetic allophones in natural speech, not the abstract phonemes.


Knippen Bob, (1999) an article on phonology, Department of English, Texas A&M University.

Wang L.J., (1997) Studies in Chinese Phonology, Berlin.

Wiese R., an article named “Underspecification and the description of Chinese vowels”.