What is a phoneme? The concept, features and functions of phonemes
In the process of studying linguistics, sooner or later we have to deal with such notions as “phoneme”, “sound”, “letter”. How do they differ and what do they have in common? Let's look at this, as well as take a closer look at such a concept of phonology (the science that studies the sound system in language) as “phoneme”.
What is a "phoneme"
This concept came to the Russian and Ukrainian languages from ancient Greek and literally translated as "sound." Despite this primordial meaning, sounds and phonemes are far from being synonymous, but more on that later. And for starters, it's worth figuring out what a “phoneme” is.
This concept denotes the minimum unit of a language that performs a sense discriminative function. Immediately it is necessary to clarify that the phoneme itself does not have any lexical or grammatical meaning.
An interesting feature: the concept of phoneme is in all languages of the world without exception. Even in the language of the deaf-and-dumb, though in it it is called “hirem”, but it has the same properties and performs similar functions.
Sound and phoneme: what are the differences between these concepts
Although these words are very close in meaning, they are not the same thing. Since sound (in this case we mean its speech form), we call the minimal acoustic oscillation of an elastic medium, which is produced by the human speech apparatus for language communication with similar ones.
At the same time, the phoneme (as an abstract language unit) is related to speech sound as a concrete unit in which it is materially realized.
As an example (which will help to visually illustrate the difference between “sound” and “phoneme”) we can cite the noun “cat”. In it, the letter “o” is under the stress and therefore corresponds to the sound [o]. At the same time, in the single-root word “kotyar” the same letter, in the same place, is transmitted with the help of another sound - [a], since it is not under the stress. It turns out that in this example, the same letter, but in different situations is indicated by different sounds. This set of various possible variants of sounds of the same letter is the phoneme.
In other words, when considering the question of what a phoneme is and how it differs from sound, the main thing is to learn: a phoneme is a series of several sounds that can alternate with each other.
Sound, letter and phoneme
Having understood what a phoneme is and how it differs from sound, it is worthwhile to consider both of these concepts with respect to a single character of the alphabet, namely, a letter.
Despite the fact that each of these three terms of linguistics has a separate meaning, in practice they illustrate one and the same general concept, but slightly from different sides. The main goal of each of them is to help with communication.
What sways the evolution of these concepts, first a speech sound arose that helped the first people to communicate with each other and organize their lives. When the sounds were organized into words, sentences, and later helped to form an entire language (and far from one), it became necessary to record all this in order to be able to transfer the accumulated knowledge to other people, including descendants. So there were letters as a graphic implementation of speech sounds. And with the emergence of the science of linguistics, scientists gradually identified the concept of phonemes and, by the way, relatively recently - in the XIX century.
Types of phonemes
All types of phonemes are divided according to different principles.
- The main criterion for dividing into species is position. Phonemes can be both weak and strong.This affects the simplicity of their identification.
- Vowels / consonants - differ depending on the method of formation: with the help of noise it happened or voices.
- Vowel phonemes in turn may or may not be under the stress.
- Vowel phonemes are labialized and non-labialized, depending on the participation of the lips in the process of forming phonemes. In Russian, there are only two labial vowel phonemes: [o] and [y].
- According to the level of softness, consonant phonemes can be divided into palatalized / non-palatalized.
- Also consonant phonemes are voiced and deaf.
- At the place of formation there are consonants: occlusive and fissure.
- Consonants (according to the method of formation): occlusive, explosive, instantaneous; slotted, fricative, long; slot-hole, affricate and valve-through.
Distinctive features (features) phonemes
Although this linguistic unit is minimal in its kind and can no longer be divided, it has a number of signs that cannot exist outside of it. They are not equivalent among themselves and are divided into two large categories: differential (distinctive) and integral.
- The principle of differentiation is based on the presence of a pair of opposite signs in the phoneme: sonority-deafness, hardness-softness, etc. If you change at least one differential feature, the phoneme will change. For example, if you remove the sign of voicing from the phoneme [v], it will instantly change to another - [f]. It is possible to judge precisely whether a given feature is distinctive, only in the case when a particular phoneme has an “antipode”, as in the previous example. If it is impossible to distinguish an antipode phoneme on this basis, it means that it is not differential. The differential features in the Russian language include: the rise and labialization for vowels; deafness-sonority, hardness-softness, a method of education and its place - for consonants.
- Integral signs of phonemes are most often not independent. They are not paired and do not need contrasts. The integral features in the Russian language are: a series for vowels and noise / sonority for consonants.
What functions do phonemes perform?
The importance of any linguistic concept can be judged by the functions it performs, and although they are few, they play a key role in the language.
- Constitutive - phonemes serve as a “building material” for various types of morphemes, syllables, words, and other language units.
- Distinctive - is expressed in the fact that with the help of phonemes one can phonetically distinguish words and various morphemes (roots, suffixes). For example, the words “washing” and “T-shirt” are very similar to each other, differing only in one letter, but their meaning is radically different: the first means a place where they wash something, the second is a piece of clothing. By the way, phonemes can perform both the word discriminative function (an example of which was given above) and the form distinctive one: “T-shirt” - I. p., “T-shirt” - V. p., “T-shirts” - I. p., Pl. h, etc.
Despite the fact that the concept of “phoneme” is more vague than sound or letter, it has great practical significance, especially for Slavic languages, because it allows you to distinguish between forms of words, given the large (in comparison with English) system of childbirth and cases. Today, the phoneme has not yet been sufficiently studied and causes a lot of controversy, the only thing that is beyond doubt is its importance for linguistics.