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Phone

What is a phone in phonetics?

In linguistics, a phone (from the Greek fōnḗ) is a distinct speech sound. We study phones in phonetics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the physical production and reception of sound. Phones are not specific to particular languages and aren’t always vital for understanding the meaning of a word. Phones are represented by letters and symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Let’s take a look at an example:

Look at the words spin and pat. They both contain the letter p; however, the speech sounds differ slightly. By looking at the phonetic transcription of the words, we can compare the two different phones.

[spɪn] and [pʰæt]

As you can see, the word spin contains 4 phones (s, p, ɪ, and n) and the word pat has 3 (pʰ, æ, and t). Notice how the first phone in the word pat is the symbol p accompanied by a small h - this is because the p is aspirated (pronounced with an exhalation of breath). Whether or not we pronounce the word pat with an exhalation of breath, the word's meaning won’t change, and most people will understand what you’re saying. However, the phone [pʰ] shows us the actual sound made when [p] is used in this word.

You might be wondering what all these strange-looking letters within brackets are - this brings us to the symbols used to represent phones and the International Phonetic alphabet.

Symbols for phones

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system for representing phonetic sounds (phones) with symbols.

It was developed by the language teacher Paul Passy in 1888 and is a system of phonetic symbols based primarily on Latin script. The chart was initially created as a way of accurately representing speech sounds and is now used by linguists and language educators around the world.

The IPA aims to represent all qualities of speech and sounds present in language, including vowels, consonants, prosodic features (pitch, intonation, and tone), gaps between sounds, and syllables.

The IPA currently comprises:

  • Pulmonic consonants - Sounds made by air pressure from the lungs. All consonants within the English language are pulmonic.

  • Non-pulmonic consonants - Sounds that are not produced with air pressure from the lungs. There are no non-pulmonic consonants in English.

  • Monophtongs- Single vowel sounds in a syllable.

  • Diphthongs - Two vowel sounds in a syllable.

  • Suprasegmentals - A group of symbols that represents the prosodic features of speech.

  • Tones and word accents - Used when transcribing tonal languages, such as Vietnamese.

  • Diacritics - Small marks that show slight distinctions in pronunciation.

Diacritics are small marks placed above, below, or next to the letter-like symbols to show slight distinctions in sounds and pronunciation. There are 44 different diacritics in the IPA. Some common ones include:

  • ◌̥ Voiceless
  • ◌̬ Voiced
  • ʰ Aspirated
  • ◌̃ Nasalised

The IPA chart

Phone The IPA chart StudySmarterThe IPA chart lists all of the sounds of speech and categorises them. - Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note that the IPA is not specific to any particular language and can be used globally to help language learners.

How do you transcribe phone pronunciations?

When we describe phones, we use narrow transcription (including as many aspects of a specific pronunciation as possible) and place the letters and symbols between two square brackets ( [ ] ). Phonetic transcriptions give us lots of information about how to physically produce sounds.

The phonetic transcription of the word scissors is [ˈsɪzəz].

The diacritic [ ' ] over the s shows that it is a syllabic consonant sound - meaning it's a sound that creates a syllable on its own.

Phones vs. Phonemes

We’ve already said that phones are distinct speech sounds, so what exactly are phonemes?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound in a specific language. In the English language, there are 44 different phonemes (20 distinct vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds).

If you have seen transcriptions for English pronunciation before, you have likely seen phonemic transcriptions. Let’s take a look at an example:

The phonemic transcription of the word book is /bʊk/. As you can see, the word book has three distinct phonemes (b, ʊ, and k).

Whereas phones are not necessarily critical to understanding the meaning of words, phonemes are! If one phoneme is exchanged for another, it could change the word's meaning completely. Take the words sheep and sheet, for example. The ending phonemes are different (/p/ and /t/), resulting in two completely different words!

You can tell whether transcription is phonetic or phonemic by looking at the brackets it's encased in. Phonetic transcriptions go within square brackets ( [ ] ) and phonemic transcriptions go within slashes ( / / ).

What are allophones?

An allophone is a term used to describe the group of phones represented by a single phoneme in a particular language.

For example, In English, the phones [tʰ] (aspirated), [t] (unaspirated), and [tʃ] (affricated) are all represented by the single phoneme /t/ - this makes them all allophones for the phoneme /t/.

Look at the following words: Trick, Tack, Stack. Each word contains one of the previous allophones for phoneme /t/. Can you figure out which word has which allophone?

Answers:

  • Trick = [tʃ] (africated - T makes a ‘CH’ sound)

  • Tack = [tʰ] (aspirated - an exhalation of air after the T)

  • Stack = [t] (unaspirated)

When we transcribe phones, we use narrow transcription - meaning we include as much detail about the pronunciation as possible with the help of diacritics. In contrast, phonemic transcription is much broader and only contains the phonemes.

Phone - Key takeaways

  • A phone is any distinct speech sound and is not specific to any particular language.
  • We study phones in phonetics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the physical production and reception of sound.
  • Phones are represented by letters and symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). When creating phonetic transcriptions, we include as much detail about the pronunciation as possible and place the transcription between two square brackets. For example, the phonetic transcription of IPA is [aɪ pʰiː eɪ].
  • Changes in pronunciation, such as aspirated or unaspirated (with an exhalation of air or without), are represented by small marks called diacritics.
  • Phones are different from phonemes in that they are not language-specific and do not play an essential role in the meaning of words.

Frequently Asked Questions about Phone

According to phonetics, a phone is a distinct speech sound.

An example of a phone is the [pʰ] sound. This is the consonant P sound with aspiration (an exhalation of air). The diacritic 'ʰ' gives us extra detail about how to correctly pronounce the p sound.   

A phone is a distinct speech sound. An allophone is a term used to describe the group of phones represented by a single phoneme within a particular language. For example,  [tʰ] (aspirated), [t] (unaspirated), and [tʃ] (affricated) are all allophones for for the phoneme /t/.

Phones are transcribed using the international phonetic alphabet. To transcribe phones, a narrow transcription is done.

Phones are studied in phonetics and are distinct speech sounds not specific to any language. Phonemes are studies in phonology and are the smallest meaningful units of sound and are language-specific.

Final Phone Quiz

Question

True or False: To transcribe phones, we use square brackets.

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Answer

True. We use the square brackets [] to transcribe phone and slash brackets // to transcribe phonemes.

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Question

How many phones are in the word dog?

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Answer

The word dog has three phones: [d], [ɒ], and [g].

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Question

How many phones are in the word phone?


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Answer

The word phone has four phones: [f], [ə], [ʊ], and [n].

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Question

How many phones are in the word castle?


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Answer

The word castle has four phones: [ˈk], [ɑː], [s], and [l].

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Question

How many phones are in the world weekend?


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Answer

The word weekend has six phones: [ˈw], [iː], [kˈ], [ɛ], [n], and [d].

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Question

How many phones are in the world exile?


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Answer

The word exile has five phones: [ˈɛ], [k], [s], [aɪ], and [l].

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Question

What is a phoneme?


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Answer

A phoneme represents the smallest, most distinctive sound unit of a language.

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Question

What is the difference between phones and phonemes in phonetics?

 

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Answer

The difference is that, according to phonetics, a phone is a distinct speech sound that does not influence the meaning of words. Differently, a phoneme is a speech sound that can create a new word with a different meaning, if you change one phoneme with another.  

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Question

True or false: in the word king, the k sound is not aspirated.


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Answer

False: The k sound is aspirated and transcribed as [kʰ].  

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Question

True or False: The vowel [ʌ] is not a phone.


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Answer

False: The vowel [ʌ] can be categorized as a phone.

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Question

True or False: The consonant /d/ is a phone.


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Answer

False: This is a trick question because the consonant [d] is a phone, but not when the slash brackets represented it.

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Question

True or False: The consonant [c] is a phone.


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Answer

True!

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Question

True or False: Phones are abstract terms. 


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Answer

False: Phones are physical sounds, while phonemes are abstract terms.

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Question

True or False: Phones give more information about the sound of a word than phonemes.


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Answer

True!

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Question

True or False: Phones can only be aspirated. 


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Answer

False: Phones can be aspirated and also unaspirated.

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