how to represent a phoneme

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Sun Jul 12 15:49:09 UTC 2009

Tom has just written to me:

> regarding>> "There is no phonetically correct way to represent a phoneme."
> I would think that because a phoneme can cover a range of phones there are
> many phonetically correct ways of representing a phoneme.
> I'd say a phoneme is a speech sound in language that can change slightly
> within a definable range depending on location in a word or nearness to
> other phonemes.

That's right. When whoever it was said the quote that you gave, they must
have meant that there was no _single_ phonetically correct way to represent
a phoneme, as I said in my original post. As you say, there are indeed
different correct ways to represent a phoneme, depending on one's dialect.
Also as you say, phonological environment can condition the way a phoneme
is realised, though it might be in ways that you don't have any control
over. For example, the /a/ in 'tan' is raised for most Americans because
it's before a nasal in the same syllable, so it sounds different from the
/a/ in 'tad', and there may not be anything you can do about it. In these
cases, the notion of 'correct' may not have much to say in the argument,
since the different pronunciations of this same phoneme aren't the result
of conscious choice.

As Ron said yesterday, there are also certainly wrong ways of representing
a phoneme: these would be the ways which indicate a pronunciation which is
not known to be used by any (group of) fluent native speaker(s) of the
language. So the notion of there being a 'wrong' way to do it doesn't have
anything to do with what any individual considers a 'good' or a 'bad'
accent, or with the standard form of a language, if there is one. A 'wrong'
way to pronounce something is not the same as a minority way of pronouncing
it, as long as people can understand the minority.


Damien Hall

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

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
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