Phonemes and allophones

For the rest of this section, we will be looking at more subtle differences between sounds than those we have been interested in for broad transcriptions.

An example: Compare pit and spit. The first consonant of pit has an extra puff of air after it which is not found after the [p] of spit. This extra puff of air can be transcribed with the IPA diacritic for aspiration, a superscript "h":

Some terminology: phonemes and allophones

A phoneme is a family of similar sounds which a language treats as being "the same". Members of the family are called its allophones.

In English, [p] and [ph] are allophones of the /p/ phoneme.

Switching allophones of the same phoneme won't change the meaning of the word: [sphIt] still means 'spit'.

Switching allophones of different phonemes will change the meaning of the word or result in a nonsense word: [skIt] and [stIt] do not mean 'spit'.

Different languages can have different groupings for their phonemes. [p] and [ph] belong to the same phoneme in English, but to different phonemes in Chinese. In Chinese, switching [p] and [ph] does change the meaning of the word.

A broad transcription uses only one symbol for all allophones of the same phoneme. This is enough information to distinguish a word from other words of the language. What details you have to include in a broad transcription will depend on what language or dialect you are transcribing.

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