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3.4: Analyzing Phonological Data

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    3.4.1  Analyzing Phonological Data, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Now that we have learned all about phonetics and phonology, let's talk about how we analyze phonological data. To do that, I’m going to go back to the same rules that we found when we talked about complimentary and contrastive distribution.


    When we look at a data set, we use this setup. We first look, are there any minimal pairs? Then we look at the distribution of those two sounds: whether or not they have the exact same environment, or if they have different environments. If they have different environments, then we know they're in complementary distribution and we start looking for the phoneme—whichever one is the most general of the sounds. But, if they have overlapping distribution or contrasting distribution, then we know that they're different phonemes entirely


    Let's take a phonological data set and let's analyze it together so that you know how to get this done.


    What you see here is a data set for German, and specifically we're going to analyze these two sounds. [x] is representative and IPA of the voiceless velar fricative. It's the sound that we also have in Spanish, with respect to the 'j' sound; in German, that's not the letter it represents, but you get the idea it's that same sound. German also has a palatal version of that same sound, [ç]. We're going to compare and contrast [x] versus [ç]. We're going to notice whether or not they are in complementary distribution or contrastive distribution. Are they phonemes in and of themselves? Are they both allophones of the same phoneme? Remember ‘allophone’ just means ‘variant’.


    The first thing you have down here are the questions; this mimics the process that I was just describing. First thing first, are there any minimal pairs? Do you see any terms over here in German written in IPA that are exactly the same over here in the palatal side? Are they're exactly the same, and the only difference is that [x] versus [ç], depending on the same place? Take a second pause the recording now.


    You should not have found any minimal pairs there are; in fact, none, and so we know that there are none.


    The next thing we have to do we have to decide, are they in complementary distribution or are they in contrastive distribution? In order to do that we need to look at the exact environment. What is the sound that comes immediately before and what is the sound that immediately comes afterwards? In order to do that, we literally go word by word, term by term. We look at the sound immediately before and the sound immediately after and we document it.


    · The word for 'eight' [axt]. The sound that comes immediately before is [a]. We write an underscore to say that's where our analysis sound is. Then the sound that comes immediately after is the [t]. And that's all we need, we do not need to write anything else.


    · The word for 'book' [bux]. The sound that comes immediately before is [u] so we write that then we have an underscore and then, in this case. It is at the end of the word, so in order to mark that we use the word boundary. In non-linguistic terms, that's a hashtag, that's a number sign, or it's a pound sign; it has a lot of roles, but in linguistics we call that a word boundary.


    Notice that we're staying within the same sound; we're not crossing back and forth across the data set, and that is typical this is how we start building our pattern.


    · The next word for 'hole' [lɔx] Okay, we have that backwards 'c' that back vowel. For some of you, you may have to use your character map. If you have downloaded an IPA font map, you will have access to the sounds and you can scroll down. In my case, there's the sound right there, so I’m going to select it and I’m going to copy it. I have that back [ɔ]. Underscore. Again that [x] sound is at the end of the word, so I’m going to mark it as such. Yes, I am using square brackets, because I know these are allophones; I don't know which one is the phone yet.


    • · The word for 'high'. [ho:x] Okay, so we have a long [o:]. Underscore, and then set the end of the word again so market accordingly.


    • · The word for 'flight' [fluxt] . Okay, sound before is [u]. Then we have the underscore and then we have [t].


    • · The word for a 'brook' like a stream, [bax] . You have an [a] and you have an underscore and a word boundary.


    • · Then the word for cake. [ku:xən]. What comes before that? Long [u:]. What comes afterwards? Schwa [ə]. Again, I’m going to have to go find that so pull up my character map. And I copy it and paste it.


    Okay, so those are the environments that we see. What do we notice? We noticed that before we have a variety of vowels: [a, u, o]. We noticed that it is after those vowels. And then we noticed that after that sound we could have a [t], we could have a word boundary we could have a [ə], we could have a lot of different possible combinations. Just by looking at this, it is hard to tell what the pattern is. We need to look at the other side


    Now let's look at the environments for [ç] the palatal.


    • · For ‘I’, [ɪç]. First things first notice each I'm going to have to use my character map to find that capital 'i', that [ɪ]. Notice that is before it, and then what comes after it a word boundary.


    • · Okay, the word for 'real', [ɛçt]. I'm going to need to go find that vowel, which I can do. Then that comes before; what comes after is a [t].


    • · The word for 'sick' [zi:ç]. Again, what do we see before [i:], what do we see afterwards, a word boundary.


    • · The word for 'smile'. [lɛçəln]. We have two vowels. I'm going to copy both.


    • · The word for to 'smell' [ri:çən]. Okay long [i:], underscore.


    • · The word for 'to fence' [fɛçtən]. That epsilon [ɛ] and then [t].


    • · And the word for 'kitchen' [kyçə]. That long but front high but rounded vowel [y] and then schwa [ə].


    So what do we see for environments? For the vowels that go in front they're all vowels. Notice: [ɪ, y, i, ɛ]. There's something interesting about those; they share a feature. Afterwards, we see word boundary; we see [t]; we see [ə]; we see lots of things there's nothing there that shares anything. But, we do see something here: all of those happen to be front vowels. Look at your IPA charts and you'll notice that all of those vowels are in the front of the trapezoid. So, they are front vowels. Are they in complementary distribution, where we see one, we don't see the other? None of these environments for [x], the velar, are exactly the same as the ones for [ç], the palatal. And the same is true in reverse; none of the palatal environments, are the same as the ones for the velar. We're comparing columns. So, are they in complimentary distribution? Yes, they are. They have different environments.


    What is the phoneme and spell out the allophones. That's really simple; remember the phoneme is going in slashes. They are our allophones: we know that one is [x] and the other one is [ç]. Okay. But which one has the more varied environments? Think about it: we were able to say that the palatal has all one type of environment—it is a very similar environment and they have something in common—but we could not do that for any of the sounds afterwards. Nor can we say anything about those environments for the velar. Therefore, if we have a really specific environment here for the palatal, that tells us that [ç], the palatal, is the variant, it is not the phoneme. That's because it has a really specific occurrence after front vowels. Everything else is going to be the velar [x]. We're going to want to say that /x/, the velar, is the phoneme.


    Now, this might have been really difficult; I can almost guarantee it was difficult. In walking you through—we'll practice this in class, and for those not in my class and are using this text, you can practice on your own with your instructors—this should help walk you through how to analyze a basic phonological problem. We are not going to go any deeper than this, at least not right now. In a different course, definitely.


    3.4: Analyzing Phonological Data is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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