In order to produce some sounds, the tip of the tongue stops the air flow at the velum on the roof of the mouth. In the pronunciation of the sounds /k/ and /g/, it feels as if the air is stopped at the back of the throat. Try pronouncing these words in order to feel a difference between the /k/ phoneme and the /g/ phoneme and see if you can tell which one is voiced and which one is voiceless.
When a speaker pronounces fricative consonants, parts of the mouth such as the teeth and bottom lip partially block the flow of air. It is as though something has obstructed the air flow, and it is fighting its way out. Again, fricatives can be voiced or voiceless also. Some examples of fricative phonemes are the /f/ and the /v/ and the (theta) and the (eth).
The /f/ and the /v/ phonemes are called labio-dental fricatives. This means that the air comes through the teeth and the lips. The pronunciation of the following words will give you a better understanding of the /f/ phoneme, which is voiceless, and the /v/, which is voiced.
The production of this sound results from an obstruction of the air flow at the alveolar ridge. Instead of being located near or on the lips, the tongue is now on the alveolar ridge. Two alveolar fricatives are the /s/ phoneme, which is voiceless, and the voiced /z/. Pronounce the following words and see if you can find a difference:
Phonemes represent a range of sound. Sounds or phonemes vary among the differences between speakers whether they be native English speakers or non-native speakers. In Understanding English Grammar, Martha Kolln and Robert Funk give the example of a conversation between a native Spanish speaker and a native speaker of English. The conversation goes something like this:
Amy: "Hey Jose! How was your trip? Did you fly or travel by train?"
Jose: "No, I came by sheep."
Amy: "Sheep? You must mean ship."
Jose: "Yes, that's what I said--sheep."
Instead of using the phonemes in English, Jose is using the phonemes that he knows in the Spanish language. We are aware of the differences between the vowel (i) in sheep and the vowel (I) in ship. Spanish does not have a difference between the vowel sounds; therefore, the pronunciation is different.
Because phonemes are such distinctive sounds, vowels and consonants can change the FORM AND MEANING of a word. Form and meaning go hand in hand. In order to understand a language, one must learn both. Even if you know the meaning of a word, you may not know how to pronounce it; likewise, if you know how to prounounce a word, you don't necessarily know what that word means. Look and consider the forms and meanings of the following words:
When studying phonemes, check to see whether changing a phoneme in a word creates a new word; if it does, then these two words are "minimal pairs," and you have two different phonemes. In other words, if the two different words are identical except for a single sound segment that occurs in the same place, then the two words are called a minimal pair. The words "link" and "pink," "fine" and "wine," and "thrive" and "drive" are all minimal pairs. Remember that all minimal pairs must sound alike in the same place of the word. If they don't, then they are not a minimal pair. Words like "seed" and "soup" are not a minimal pair.
A "phonetic segment" is called a phone. The different phones that come from a phoneme are called allophones of that particular phoneme. In the English language, an allophone can be both oral and nasalized for each vowel phoneme. These occurrences don't happen at random, but are rule-governed, as shown by a general principle. As stated before, these rules are known instinctively by the native English speaker, so these are not taught, but are learned as we grow from a child to an adult and listen to the people around us.
When words are pronounced separately, the sound is quite different than when words are pronounced together. Try pronouncing the following sentences to see a difference:
Would you please pass the jelly?
Did you finish your homework?
You can notice how the voiced /d/ and the voiceless /y/ are connected in the pronunciation. This is called assimilation. Assimilation is used primarily in conversation. If you were to pronounce these words separately, as in a list, then put them in a sentence, you would notice a difference and the role that assimilation plays.
Using the phonetic alphabet, rewrite the word according to the way that it sounds.
Kolln, Martha and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.Written by Tabitha Strickland
Fromkin, Victoria and Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 5th ed. Fort Worth: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.