Concept of the Phoneme Essay

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Concept of the Phoneme The process of speech involves a stream of sounds which can be divided into discrete units referred to as segments or phonemes. The word “pen”, for instance, contains three units of sound /p, e and n/. In principle, there are forty-four sound units made-up of twenty vowels and twenty-four consonants. These vowels and consonants are abstract units of speech which are technically referred to as phoneme. By definition, the phoneme is simply a unit of utterance which signals a difference in meaning. That is why we see great relevance in Aleason (1969) which states that the phoneme is a minimum feature or expression by which what is said can be distinguished from what might have been said. We notice therefore that even the phoneme is an abstract unit of expression; it is still relevant as a contrastive unit, which allows for a meaningful work on dialectology. Besides, certain phonological processes can only take place on the phoneme. The abstract reality of the phoneme can be established using the minimal pair and a minimal is ordinarily a pair of words which differ in both their meaning and composition as a result of the difference in a single sound unit in a corresponding position in the two words. The words “man” and “pan” differ in their meaning and composition because of the contrast between /m/ and /p/ at the initial position. The same thing can be said of “ten” and “ton” which differ in meaning because of the contrast between the vowels at the middle position. The contrast could be with the phonemes at the final position as in “cat” and “can”. The pairs are described as minimal pairs and if the difference between the words in each pair signals a difference in meaning, the phoneme has important phonological significance. ALLOPHONES/PHONES As we appreciate the significance of the phoneme, it is important to stress that in

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