Phonemes can be thought of as a bundle of features. Any sound you know, can be described by a list of distinctive features they bear such that if one feature is altered, the sound is altered. For instance, /s/ is a voiceless, alveolar fricative. By changing the voicing feature to ‘voiced’ we change the sound to /z/.
Distinctive features enable us to:
-classify phonemes into categories
-distinguish classes of phonemes one from another
-formulate predictions as to how classes of phonemes will behave
-display language-specific constraints
A speaker of any language has an idea, an abstract concept of the sounds s/he believes to be articulating which is referred to as the underlying representation (UR). In transcriptions, these sounds are surrounded by back-slashes / / to signify a broad transcription, one that represents the basic forms of sounds without taking into consideration how surrounding sounds or word positions may affect articulation.
More than not, there is a disparity between the UR and that which actually is uttered by the speaker, or the surface form (SF). Surface form transcriptions are surrounded by brackets [ ] signifying a narrow transcription, which shows how sounds are articulated in the context of surrounding sounds and word positions (phonological environment). Speakers of any language are unaware of the variant forms of sounds that they are using in natural speech.
One of the primary goals of phonological analysis is to identify and distinguish between distinct phonemes and their variants (allophones), and account for the distribution of their surface forms.
Distinct phonemes can have a one-to-one correlation between the underlying representation and the surface form, as in man or slim.
(1) / m / underlying representation
[ m ] surface form
Distinct phonemes can also surface as several forms depending on their phonological environment. For example, /t/ has several surface forms. Consider how /t/ is articulated in the following words by comparing the underlying representation with the surface forms.
So how can we be sure that a sound we use or hear is distinct, or a variant form of what we think we are producing?
A distinct phoneme or contrasting sound that contributes to the meaning of a word since it is perceived as belonging to a specific category in the mental grammar of the speaker. In other words, we know that in English /p, t, k/ are distinct phonemes since changing one for another changes meaning (or shows contrast in meaning).
(2) /pat/pot /tat/ tot /kat/ cot
Minimal pairs are two or more distinct words that differ in only one sound (or in one phonetic feature such as stress or length)
A minimal pair results when substituting one phoneme for another creates a new word:
(3) bit /bIt/ vs bait /bet/
This may occur in any word position
1) word initially:/ɹɪp/ rip vs /lɪp/ lip
2) word medially: /bɪkəɹ/ bicker vs /bɪgəɹ/ bigger
3) word finally: /dajm/ dime vs /dajn/ dine
Distinctive phones are unpredictable, non-redundant. They can surface most anywhere in a word in any language.
As we saw in Table 1, the SFs of /t/ were only different in one feature from the UR (except in the case of ‘kitten’). Thus, when using minimal pairs to find distinct phonemes, it is important to compare segments that differ minimally.
It is not likely that /h/ would be a variant of /n/ since they do not share many distinctive features. It is likely however that /m/ would be a variant of /n/ in the mind of a speaker as they are both nasals and only differ in place of articulation.
Here are more examples of minimal pairs in English and French.
(4) word initial
French: [bo] beautiful [po] pot
English: [tIp] tip [dIp] dip
French: [kut] costs 1 p.s. [kud] sews 3 p.p.
English: [tin] teen [tim] team
French: [paxto᷈] let’s go [paxdo᷈] excuse me
English: [æŋkəl] ankle [æŋgəl] angle
When we suspect that two phonemes are distinct but cannot find them in identical phonological environments, we may look for a near minimal pair: two words with distinct meanings that show distinct phonemes in nearly identical phonological environments
(5) / ʃ: ʒ/
[əʃʊ́ɹ] assure vs. [ǽʒɹ̩] azure
[mɪʃən] mission vs. [fɪʒən] fission
Another type of distribution of phonemes in which the alternation in minimal pairs does not alter meaning is free variation. The usage of one phoneme instead of another is based on sociolinguistic factors rather than phonological rules in a language. For example, when you are being careful to make a good impression on someone, you will most likely [ŋ] rather than [n] in a word such as /ɹidɪŋ/ reading. However, if you decide to use [n] as in /ɹidɪn/, meaning is not changed but rather the level of formality. This can occur with vowels also. Vowel sounds:
(6) [iθəɹ] vs. [ajθəɹ] either
[ɹut] vs. [ɹawt] route
Finding distinct phonemes in minimal pairs is the first step in phonological analysis.
For practice go to our exercise Phonology: Minimal Pairs 1.1