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Speech tip: Know your allophones!

When we speak, we combine sounds to form words. The words thus spoken have meaning when we communicate. In any language, the smallest unit of sound that can change meaning is called a phoneme. The word pool has three phonemes:  /p/, /u/, and /l/.  The word weigh has two phonemes /w/ and /e/.

Within any language, each phoneme may have variants, depending on the context.  These variants may change the sound of the phoneme to some degree. These variants of phonemes are called allophones. For example, the phoneme /p/ has several variants, often depending on where it falls within a word. One allophone of /p/ is aspirated.  When a phoneme is aspirated, it sounds like there is a slight puff of air. Another allophone of /p/ is unaspirated:  there is no puff of air.  In the word pool, the /p/ must be pronounced using the correct allophone.  In the case of the word pool, English speakers must use the aspirated allophone of /p/. To use any other allophone of /p/ in the word pool would not sound right, and listeners might be confused.

There is actually a rule that English speakers unconsciously know. Whenever /p/ is before a vowel at the beginning of a stressed syllable, we must use the aspirated allophone of /p/. This would apply to words like pie, pear, appear, and patient.

On the other hand, when the /p/ is at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, English speakers know that the unaspirated allophone of /p/ is the one to use. It’s another rule that every speaker of English unconsciously knows. The unaspirated /p/ would apply to words like apple, polite, copper, and typing. Again, if they do otherwise, they may sound strange.

There is yet another rule for /p/ in English. Whenever the /p/ sound comes after the sound /s/, we know that we must use the unaspirated allophone, not the aspirated allophone.  This applies to words like spin, spool, special, and Spanish.

Why is it so important to use the correct allophones when pronouncing English? If you use the incorrect allophones, you won’t sound natural as an English speaker, and people may sometimes misunderstand you. Every language has its own special rules for phonemes and the way that they vary. If you master those rules in a second language, you will speak it with clearer pronunciation and with a less noticeable accent.  

If you want to improve your accent and pronunciation in English, you will need to master a number of the allophones in English. If it sounds complicated, it really is not! Learning just a few of these systematic rules can make a very significant improvement in your English pronunciation.  At Confident Speech, we specialize in accent programs that will help you achieve clear English. Explore our web site to learn more about our range of offerings. Or contact us