how to represent a phoneme

ronbutters at AOL.COM ronbutters at AOL.COM
Fri Jul 10 12:59:51 UTC 2009

So if a phoneme is realized in a forest and there is somebody there to hear it, then it doesn't exist?

Damian is confused by dialect variation and a murky definition of "correct." The use of phonetic symbols is of course CONVENTIONAL, but within any particular system there is certainly right and wrong. For example, it would be wrong to represent "dog" as /nag/ in any known dialect of English. Damien's explanation would apply in the same trivial way to phonetics: we could also use a smiley face to represent a velar fricative, but this would be wrong in the not-at-all sense that no one would have the foggiest idea what we meant.
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-----Original Message-----
From: Damien Hall <djh514 at YORK.AC.UK>

Date:         Wed, 8 Jul 2009 21:32:52
Subject:      [ADS-L] how to represent a phoneme

Tom -

You asked:

> Someone just made this statement.  Is it right?
> "There is no phonetically correct way to represent a phoneme."

Yes, it is. Basically, the reason is that phonemes are units in phonology
and not in phonetics.

What this means is this. Phonology is the study of the sound-systems of
languages - how the sounds in any one language relate to one another as a
system, or how similar types of systems can be found in more than one
language. According to the dominant schools of phonology - which I believe
are the ones that most people on this list who care about such things work
in - what a phoneme is, is simply an abstract sound-unit in a particular
slot in the system of some language. It doesn't care about actual

Since a phoneme is just the name for whatever sound fills a particular slot
in a language, it can be represented by an arbitrary symbol. If we use a
symbol that looks similar to some specific sound, that's only for ease of
reference. This is what allows the actual pronunciation of phonemes to vary
- what allows people to have different accents and yet speak the same

For example, take what's known as the 'short-a system' - the different ways
in which people can pronounce the /a/ in 'bad'. As a Brit, I pronounce it
one way. If I were a Chicagoan, I might pronounce it something like 'ee-a',
so the word would become 'bee-ad', as you see it written in some texts
where the author wants to lampoon a Chicago accent. If I were Canadian, I
might pronounce it a little more like 'ah', 'bahd'. But any speaker of any
variety of English can still recognize that the Chicagoan, the Canadian and
I are all saying some sound that fills the 'a' gap in our systems, even if
we all pronounce it differently. The reason any speaker of English can do
this is that we all have (more-or-less) the same phonology, the same
_system_, and crucially we all have exactly the same number of phonemes in
our language, because we're all speaking English. Because we all recognize
that this sound, 'a', 'ee-a' or 'ah', fills the 'a' gap in our systems, we
represent that sound with the symbol


for convenience. But, because phonemes are abstract units and don't make
any claims about pronunciation, the representation of this one by


is only for convenience. It would be just as valid to represent it with a
smiley face, as long as everyone else knew what you meant.

So you can see that there is no phonetically correct way to represent a
phoneme, because the concept of 'phoneme' doesn't say anything about how
phonemes should be pronounced, only how they fit into the sound-system of
the speakers of the language. The Chicagoan, the Canadian and I all
pronounce 'bad' correctly for our types of English, even though we are all
saying the same phoneme (we are all saying the sound that fills the 'a' gap
in our systems), and even though our pronunciations are all phonetically
different. So, there is no single phonetically correct way to represent a

Hope that helps!


Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673


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