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The Functional Aspect of Speech Sounds


1. Acoustic and articulatory aspects of speech sounds.

2. The phoneme. Its functions.

3. The system of English phonemes:

a) articulatory classification of English consonant phonemes;

b) articulatory classification of English vowel phonemes;

4. English consonants and vowels as units of the phonological system.

5. Transcription.

1. Acoustically, speech sound is a physical phenomenon produced by the vibration of the vocal cords and perceived due to the vibration of the layers of air which occur at the rate of 16 to 20 thousand times per second. This is a limit of human hearing. Sound has a number of physical properties, as:

1) frequency - the number of vibrations per second;

2) intensity - variation in the loudness of a sound;

3) duration the length of the sound.

To analyze a speech sound articulatory some data of articulatory mechanism and

its work should be introduced.

Speech is impossible without the following four mechanisms:

1) the power mechanism which consists of the diaphragm, the lungs, the bronchi, the windpipe, the glottis, the larynx, the mouth cavity and the nasal cavity;

2) the vibrator mechanism which includes the vocal cords (they are in the larynx);

3) the resonator mechanism which consists of the pharynx, the larynx, the mouth cavity and nasal cavity;

4) the abstractor mechanism which consists of the tongue (its blade, tip, front and back), the lips, the teeth, the soft palate with uvula, the hard palate, the alveolar ridge.


2. Phonetics studies sounds as articulatory and acoustic units. Phonology investigates them as units which serve people for communicative purposes. Both phonetics and phonology are closely connected.

The founder of the phoneme theory was the Russian scientist Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929). His views were later developed and perfected by his follower L.V. Scherba, who separated phonetics from phonology and stated that sounds are not only articulatory and acoustic units but that they also possess functional properties. Scherba stated that in actual speech we utter a much greater variety of sounds than we are aware of. To know how sounds are produced by speech organs is not enough to describe and classify them as language units. When we talk about the sounds of a language, the term "sound" can be interpreted in to rather different ways. In this case linguists use two separate terms: "phoneme" to mean "sound" and "allophone" for sounds which are variants of a phoneme, they usually occur in different positions in the word; can't contrast with each other and be used to make meaningful distinctions.

The phoneme is a minimal abstract linguistic unit realized in speech in the form of speech sounds opposable to other phonemes of the same language to distinguish the meaning of phonemes and words.

The phoneme can be considered from the point of view of its three aspects. Firstly, the phoneme is a functional unit, that is, the role of the various components of the phonetic system of the language in distinguishing one morpheme from another, one word from another or also one phrase from another. The opposition of phonemes serves to distinguish the meaning of morphemes and words: E.g. said - says, bath-path, light - like

and the whole phrase: E.g. He was heard badly. - He was hurt badly.

Secondly, the phoneme is material, real, and objective. That means that it is realize in speech of all English speaking people in the form of speech sounds, its allophones. The set of speech sounds (the allophones belonging to the same phoneme) are not identical in their articulation through there remains some phonetic similarity between them:

E.g. [d] in isolation is plosive, forelingual, alveolar, voiced. But: - it is slightly palatalized before front vowels and sonorant [j] e.g. day, did;

- is pronounced without any plosion before another plosive e.g. bedtime, bad pain;

- is pronounced with nasal plosion before nasal sonorants [n] and [m] e.g. sudden, admit;

- followed by posed-alveolar [r] it also becomes post-alveolar e.g. dry, dream.

These modifications of the phoneme [d] are quite sufficient to demonstrate the articulatory difference between its allophones. Consequently, through allophones of the same phoneme possess similar articulatory features they may frequently show considerable phonetic differences.

Thirdly, allophones of the same phoneme, no matter how different their articulation may be, function as the same linguistic unit. The question arises why phonetically native speakers seldom observe differences between the allophones of the same phoneme. The reason is that the phonemes have an important function in the language, they differentiate words; allophones have no such functions, they occur in different positions in the word.

In speech the phoneme serves to perform three functions:

a) constitutive, because sounds constitute words, phrases and sentences;

b) distinctive, because sounds help to distinguish them;

- c) recognitive, that is, its allophones help to recognize words, phrases and


3. There are two major classes of sound traditionally distinguished by phoneticians in most languages. They are termed consonants and vowels.

Articulatory difference between vowels and consonants depend on the three criteria;

1) the presence or absence of an obstruction to the air in the larynx;

2) the concentrated or diffused character of muscular tension;

3) the force of exhalation.


On the basis of these criteria consonants may be defined as sounds in the production of which there is an obstruction to the air, muscular tension is concentrated in the place of obstruction, the exhaling force is strong.

Vowels as sounds in the production of which there is no obstruction to the air, muscular tension is diffused more or less evently, the exhaling force is weak, a) Phoneticians classify consonants according to the following principles:

1. Degree of noise.

2. Active organs of speech and the place of obstruction.

3. Manner of noise production and the type of obstruction.

4. Position of soft palate.

1. According to the degree of noise consonants are subdivided into noise consonants and sonorants. In the production of noise consonants there is a noise component characteristic. Noise consonant sounds vary:

a) according to the work of vocal cords, the may be voiced [b,d,g,z,v,6,3,d3] and voiceless [p,t,k,s,f,h,j,tl,e];

b) according to the force of exhalation, the may be weak and strong. English phoneticians call weak consonants lenis and strong consonants fortis.

All voiced consonants are weak (lenis) and voiceless are strong (fortis).

Sonorants are sounds intermediate between noise consonants and vowels because they have features common to both. They are made with tone prevailing over noise. They are [m,n,w,r,l,j,rj].

2. According to the active organs of speech and the place of obstruction consonants are classified into labial, lingual and pharyngal (glottal).

- labial are subdivided into: bilabial [p,b,m,w] and labio - dental [f,v].

- lingual are subdivided into forelingual, medio-lingual and back-lingual. Forelingual in its turn are subdivided into dental [6,o], alveolar [t,d,n,s,z,l], palato-alveolar [J,tJ,3,d3] and post-alveolar [r]. Medio-lingual is the only sound [j]. Back-lingual sounds are [k,g,rj].

- pharyngal is the only sound [h].

3. According to the manner of noise production and the type of obstruction, consonants are classified into:

a) complete, or occlusive [b,d,g,p,t,k,m,n,rj];

b) incomplete or constrictive [f,v,d,e,J,3,w,r,lj];

c) combination of two closures or occlusive - constrictive, or affricates [tj,d3]. 4. According to the position of the soft palate all consonants are subdivided into oral and nasal.

Nasal: [m,n,rj], oral: all the rest.

b) The first who tried to describe and classify vowels sounds of the mother

tongue was DJones. He devised the system of Cardinal Vowels. This system is an

international standard.

Acoustically vowels differ due to their tembral colouring, each vowel is

characterized by its own formants.

Phoneticians suggest to classify vowels according to the following principles:

1. Stability of articulation;

2. Tongue position;

3. Lip position;

4. Degree of tenseness and the character of the end of a vowel;

5. Length.

1. According to the stability of articulation vowels are subdivided into:

a) monophthongs (simple vowels) which are pronounced with more or less stable lip, tongue and the mouth walls position. They are [i,e,u,a:,9,9:].

b) diphthongoids, vowels which end in a different element. There are two diphthongoids in English [i:,u:].

c) diphthongs, which consist of two elements: the nucleus and the guide. They are [ei,ai,oi,au,3u,is,£9,u9].

2. According to the tongue position scientists divide vowels according to the horizontal and vertical movement of the tongue.

According to the horizontal movement of the tongue vowels are subdivided into:

front: [i:], [e], [se] and the nuclei of the diphthongs [ei], [еэ]; front-retracted: [i] and the nucleus of the diphthong [is]; central: [Л], [э], [э:] and the nucleus of the diphthong [эй]; back: [o,o:,u:,a:] and the nucleus of the diphthong [oi]; back-advanced: [u] and the nucleus of the diphthong [ш].


According to the vertical movement of the tongue vowels are subdivided into:

close (high): [i],[i:], [u], [u:] and the nuclei of diphthongs [Ъ],[иэ];

mid (half-open): [e, э, э:,/Ц and nuclei of diphthongs [ei],[au];

open (low): [о], [о:], [a:], [as] and the nuclei of diphthongs [au], [ai],[oi], [еэ].

3. According to the lip position vowels are classified into: rounded (labialized): [u], [u:],[o],[ o:] and unrounded (non - labialized): all the rest.

4. According to the degree of tenseness traditionally long vowels are defined as tense and short as lax, and according to the character of the vowel end they can be defined as checked (when a stressed vowel is followed by a strong voiceless consonant) and free (when a stressed vowel is followed by a weak voiced consonant or no consonant at all).

5. According to the length vowels are classified into historically long [i:,a:,o:,u:,9:] and historically short [i,e,o,u,a].

Vowels length depends on a number of linguistic factors:

a) position in the word;

b) word accent;

c) the number of syllables in the word;

d) the character of the syllabic structure;

e) sonority;

4. Sounds can function as units of language only if they differ from one another. The main method of establishing phonemes of a given language is the discovery of minimal pairs. This method is called the semantic method. The method is based on a phonetic rule that phonemes can distinguish words and morphemes when opposed to one another. It consists in finding minimal pairs - when in a contrastive pair one consonant phoneme is opposite to any other in at least one position. The phonological analysis of the system of English consonant phonemes helps to establish 24 phonemes: [p,b,t,d,k,g,f,v,s,z,h,6,0j,tj,d3^fn,n,n,w,r,l,j].

Principles of classification suggested by Russian phoneticians provide the

basis for the establishment of the following distinctive oppositions in the system of


1. Work of vocal cords: voiceless/voiced


e.g. pen - Ben, ten - den, coat - goat

2. Active organs of speech and the place of articulation:

a) labial /lingual [p - k], [b -1], [f -1]

b) lingual /pharyngal [t - h], [6 - h], [f - h], [k - h]

3. Manner of the articulation:

a) occlusive /constrictive [p,b,d,k,m] - [f,l,5,0J]

b) constrictive /affricates [f,w] - [tj,d3]

4. Position of the soft palate: oral /nasal [t,k,v] - [m,n,rj]

And we can establish the following English vowels:

monophthongs - [1,е,а:,о,о:,и,э,э:]

diphthongs - [ei,ai,oi,U9,au,9u,83]

diphthongoids - [i:,u:]

Vowel opposition can be made according to:

a. lip position: rounded / unrounded: lock - lack;

b. position of the tongue:

a) horizontal movement of the tongue

- front /central [e,as] - [э:]: bed - bird;

- back /central [u,a:,o:] - [э:]: call - curl;

b) vertical movement of the tongue

close (high) /mid (half- open) [i,u,i:] - [э:]: put - port; open (low) / mid (half- open) [а:,о:,аз] - [э:]: bard - bird;

3. degree of tenseness and character of the vowel end:

tense /lax: peel - pill; checked /free: done - darn;

4. length:

long /short: deed - did;

5. stability of articulation:

- monophthongs /diphthongs [i,e,o] - [ei,i9,u,89]: bit - bite;

- diphthongs /diphthongoids [ai,ei,i9, еэ] - [i:,u:]: bite - bee;

5. The system of phonetic notations is generally termed as "transcription".

Transcription is a set symbols representing speech sounds. The symbolization of sounds naturally differ according to whether the aim is to indicate the phoneme or to reflect the modification of its allophones as well.

The International Phonetic Association gives the following types of transcription:

a) broad or phonemic which provides special symbols for all the phonemes of a language;

b) narrow or allopohonic which suggests special symbols including some information about articulatory activity of particular allophonic features.

The broad transcription is mainly used for practical purpose, the narrow serves for research work.


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