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Joseph Fatula wrote:
> I'm having a problem analyzing the phonemes of a language.  The sound 
> [e] only appears before voiceless consonants, while [i] can appear in 
> any other environment.  This leads me to think that they're allophones 
> of each other, except for the following problem.  Voiceless fricatives 
> become voiced between vowels, yet the [e] in such cases remains 
> unchanged:
>
>   - [nef] > [neva]
>   - [niv] > [niva]
>
> Among words with the "-a" suffix, this [e] vs. [i] distinction is the 
> only thing showing the difference between words like [neva] and 
> [niva].  Are these minimal pairs?  Are [e] and [i] separate phonemes?
>

Looking at everybody's responses so far, it seems as though most of you 
think these are two separate phonemes.  Disagreement seems to be 
centered around the idea of distinct underlying phonemes that happen to 
have the same phonetic realization.  I'm not sure whether I like this 
idea or not.

The way I've usually seen to find out if two phones are representing two 
different phonemes is whether they contrast in the same environment.  In 
the example above, the [e] and [i] phones do indeed contrast in the _CV 
environment.  The two phones are not in complementary distribution, as 
they can both occur in this specific environment.

The examples I gave you were not the actual ones I've been looking at.  
I disguised it like this because I didn't want to start Yet Another 
English Pronunciation Thread, since I'm actually trying to diagnose 
something in the dialect of English I speak.  By this rendering of 
things, I'm using way too many vowel sounds, far more than I'd ever put 
in any conlang.