English allophones

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An allophone is a variant sound of a phoneme (from Greek állos "other" and phōnē, "voice, sound"). A phoneme is regarded by native speakers of a language as a single sound, though actually any vowel or consonant is pronounced differently in different contexts. Because every segmental sound is influenced by the sound before and/or after it, any phoneme can have slight phonetic variations in different contexts. For example, the English /t/ phoneme is pronounced differently in different environments: as an unaspirated [t] in stop [stαp], as an aspirated [tʰ] in top [ˈtʰɒp], and as a tap sound [ɾ] before unstressed vowels as in 'butter.' Native English speakers would not recognize these as different sounds, and would hear them all as /t/. Allophonic variations can be due to particular phonetic contexts in words, as in the preceding examples, as well as variations in dialects, and even individual variations in speech.

Some common English allophones are summarized below. Here, standard linguistic practice is followed for using slash marks like /t/ for phonemes, square brackets like [t] for phonetic transcription of allophones, and angled brackets like <t> for spelling.

1 Consonants

Some of these are from Ladefoged (2001).[1]

Consonant sound or group Allophones Examples
Voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ Aspirated before stressed vowels (in stressed syllables): [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] pie, tie, kite
Unaspirated or "soft" plosives before unstressed vowels & syllables: [p, t, k]
Unaspirated or "soft" immediately after /s/: [sp, st, sk]
rapper, latter, hacker
spill, still, skill
Unreleased airflow at word boundaries, or before another obstruent: [p̚, t̚, k̚] rap, rat, rack; napsack, night rate, tick-tock
Alveolar /t/ Alveolar tap [ɾ] before unstressed vowel & syllable in North American English butter, splatter
Nasal release before /n/, especially before unstressed syllables button
Glottal stop [ʔ] before /n, l/ in some British dialects button, bottle
Voiced and voiceless plosives /p, t, k, b, d, ɡ/ Nasal release if followed by a nasal consonant, even across syllable or word boundaries happening, what not, redneck
Sonorants Devoiced after aspirated plosives /p, t, k/ pray, play, tray, cray, clay
Sonorants /j, w, l, ɹ, m, n, ŋ/ Partial devoicing after voiceless consonants in the same syllable twat, try
Obstruents — plosives and fricatives Partial devoicing at the end of a word or before a voiceless consonant, even across word boundaries.
This includes the partially devoiced /z/ variant of the inflectional ending <-s>
hive, hives, goes, dogs
Alveolar retraction Alveolars /t, d, n, l/ are retracted before /ɹ/ try, dream, enrage, alright
Voiced stops and affricates /b,d,g,dʒ/ Partially devoiced the beginning of syllables (unless immediately preceded by a voiced sound) bay, day, go, jee
Dark /l/ The /l/ can be velarized in many dialects of American English — the so-called dark /l/, especially before back vowels, at word boundaries, or even before high vowels like /ɪ/. Some dialect speakers may use it before other vowels as well. bull, fill, ball, file
Syllabic /l, n/ In unstressed syllables with a schwa /ə/, the schwa may be reduced so that the consonant is the nucleus of the syllable, i.e., the syllable consists of the consonant, and practically no vowel sound. These sounds can be written as [l̩ n̩] button, bottle, paddle
Alveolar consonants Particularly /n/ and /l/ can be dentalized before /θ, ð/.
This can also occur across word boundaries.
month, tenth, health
at this = [æt̪͜ θɪs]
Consonants Consonants are phonetically longer when at a word boundary or at the end of a phrase bib
Nasal epenthesis A soft voiceless stop may be inserted after a nasal consonant and before a voiceless fricative, at a word boundary or when followed by an unstressed vowel in the same word. tense [tεnts], something [ˈsʌmpθɪŋ]
Velar stops /k,g/ These become more advanced or fronted before front vowels key [ki], geese [gis].

2 Vowels

Vowel sound or group Allophones Examples
Phonetic lengthening Vowels in stressed syllables before final voiced obstruents are phonetically lengthened. The consonant is partially devoiced, so vowel lengthening serves as an extra cue that the consonant is voiced. Conversely, vowels before voiceless final obstruents are shortened cab vs. cap; five vs. fife; code vs. coat; lag vs. lack
Nasalization Vowels can be slightly nasalized before a nasal consonant. This is more noticeable in dialects known for their nasality, such as some dialects in the southern US or New England hand, camper
Long "o" The long "o", generally /ɔʊ/ or /oʊ/, is pronounced as /əʊ/ in British Received Pronunciation (RP) and in some southeastern US dialects. go [gəʊ]
Rhotic /ə/ The schwa /ə/ in British dialects is often pronounced [ɐ] in open syllables. her
Tense vowel drawl In some dialects, especially in the US, tense vowels are triphthongized with a schwa /ə/ glide, especially /l/. This occurs in other contexts in southern US dialects with even stronger southern drawl effects peel [pʰi:əɫ], pool [pʰu:əɫ], pail [pʰeɪəɫ], pole [pʰoʊəɫ]

A number of other vowels and variations occur in various dialects, and there are too many such variations to list here. See the English vowels page for a summary of phonemic vowels in the major varieties of English, and other resources such as phonetics and dialectology studies on the pronunciations of vowels in various dialects.

3 See also

  1. Ladefoged, Peter (2001). A Course in Phonetics (4th ed.). Orlando: Harcourt.