Background Information


  • Definition: A phone is a specific speech sound that can be physically produced and observed.
  • Characteristics:
    • It is the actual realization or manifestation of a sound in spoken language.
    • Phones are concrete and can be transcribed using phonetic alphabets like the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), enclosed in square brackets [ ].
    • Different phones can represent the same phoneme due to factors like accent, context, or individual variation.


  • Definition: A phoneme is an abstract unit in the sound system of a language.
  • Characteristics:
    • It represents a class or family of similar speech sounds (phones) that are perceived as functionally equivalent by native speakers.
    • Phonemes are contrastive units that can distinguish meanings in a language.
    • Phonemes are represented symbolically, often using slashes / /.
    • A single phoneme can have multiple phonetic realizations (phones) depending on the context or speaker.


The word “cat” provides a clear illustration of the distinction between phonemes and phones:

  • Phonemic Representation: /k/, /æ/, /t/
    • These are the abstract units that differentiate words in the language.
  • Phonetic Realization: [kʰæ̃t]
    • The actual sounds produced when speaking the word, including:
      • [kʰ] (an aspirated [k])
      • [æ̃] (a slightly nasalized vowel)
      • [t] (an unaspirated [t])

Practical Section: Exercises to Enhance Understanding

Exercise 1: Identifying Phones and Phonemes

Objective: Develop the ability to distinguish between phonemes and phones by transcribing spoken words.

  • Task: Listen to a recording of a word and transcribe the phonemes and phones.
  • Steps:
    1. Select a recording of a word (e.g., “bat”).
    2. Identify the phonemes in the word (e.g., /b/, /æ/, /t/).
    3. Listen carefully and transcribe the actual phones you hear (e.g., [bæ̃t]).
    4. Compare your transcriptions and note any differences.
  • Example:
    • Word: “bat”
    • Phonemic transcription: /b/, /æ/, /t/
    • Possible phonetic transcription: [bæ̃t]

Exercise 2: Minimal Pairs

Objective: Understand how phonemes can change the meaning of words by identifying minimal pairs.

  • Task: Identify pairs of words that differ by only one phoneme and observe how the meaning changes.
  • Steps:
    1. Choose a set of minimal pairs (e.g., “bat” and “pat”).
    2. Transcribe the phonemes of each word (e.g., /bæt/ and /pæt/).
    3. Note the phoneme that changes between the words (/b/ vs. /p/).
    4. Observe and describe how this change affects the meaning.
  • Example:
    • “bat” /bæt/ vs. “pat” /pæt/
    • Difference: Initial phonemes /b/ and /p/
    • Meaning: “bat” refers to an animal or a piece of sports equipment, while “pat” refers to a light touch.

Exercise 3: Contextual Variation

Objective: Learn how the same phoneme can have different phonetic realizations based on context.

  • Task: Notice how the same phoneme can have different phonetic realizations depending on the context.
  • Steps:
    1. Select words that contain the same phoneme in different contexts (e.g., “top” and “stop”).
    2. Transcribe the phonemes for each word (e.g., /tɒp/ and /stɒp/).
    3. Listen and transcribe the phones (e.g., [tʰɒp] and [stɒp]).
    4. Compare the phonetic realizations and describe the differences.
  • Example:
    • Phoneme /t/ in “top” [tʰɒp] vs. “stop” [stɒp]
    • Observation: In “top,” the /t/ is aspirated [tʰ], while in “stop,” it is unaspirated [t].

Exercise 4: Accent Variation

Objective: Recognize how accents can affect the phonetic realization of phonemes.

  • Task: Compare the pronunciation of the same word in different accents.
  • Steps:
    1. Choose a word (e.g., “water”).
    2. Find recordings of speakers with different accents pronouncing the word.
    3. Transcribe the phonemes (e.g., /wɔtər/).
    4. Listen and transcribe the phones for each accent (e.g., [ˈwɔtər] for American English and [ˈwɔːtə] for British English).
    5. Compare and describe the variations.
  • Example:
    • Word: “water”
    • American English: [ˈwɔtər]
    • British English: [ˈwɔːtə]
    • Observation: The British English pronunciation has a longer vowel sound and a non-rhotic ending.

Reference: [Applied Psycholinguistics and Communication Disorders ] Harry Hollien (auth.) – The Acoustics of Crime_ The New Science of Forensic Phonetics (1990, Springer)

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