Daniel Seriff wrote:

> Can anyone accurately distinguish the words "phonetic", "phonemic", and
> "morphemic" for me? I've never quite gotten the exact degrees of
> difference between them.

Sure.  There's a natural progression in terminology here:

A _phonetic_ distinction is one that is discussing the acoustic properties
of sounds as absolute, scientificly verifiable units.  For example, in English,
the sound of /t/ in "star" is phonetically different from that in "tar", because
of a difference in the level of vibration of the vocal chords when the sound
is articulated (technically, the "voice-onset timing", but let's not go there);
we couldn't care less about any human interpretation or social convention


A _phonemic_ distinction is one that is taking into account what the speaker
on some level thinks is necessary to distinguish when he's speaking, whether
it's a meaningful distinction.  So, in English, we have to distinguish between
/t/ and /d/, because we know that it's important to make sure our listeners hear
"dog" and not "tog".  On the other hand, we don't think it's important to
distinguish (and indeed, are usually entirely unaware of the distinction) between
the phonetically different [t] in "star" and the [t_h] in "tar".  It's simply not
important for English speakers, even though plenty of other languages find it
just as important as the English /t/ : /d/ distinction.

Now, in all the above, when I speak of a meaningful distinction, I do not
mean that there is semantic or syntactic meaning applied to the sounds. I
mean only whether or not a distinction must be made just to form the word
correctly, regardless of what it means. So we can say a word like "talopp",
a nonsense word, but it will obey the same rules about how to articulate
the phoneme /t/ at the beginning of the word, and similar rules for all the other

So, the basic distinction of talking about phonemic and phonetic
differences is in the level of interpretation, because both are there
simultaneously, interacting with one another.

A morphological distinction is different.  Morphology is basically the next
level up after phonemes:  each morpheme not only has a set of sounds
and rules to govern those sounds, but it has some sort of semantic meaning
too.  So, English -ly is a morpheme consisting of two phonemes /l/ and /i/,
which also carries with it the syntactic connotation "I make things into
adverbs".   Morphemes can be either free, meaning they can sit in a
sentence on their own (like "dog"), or bound, meaning they must be used in
connection with a free morpheme (like the plural ending -s). But whatever
the case, be they bound or free, they have some sort of meaning associated
with them.

Tom Wier <[log in to unmask]>
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