What is Allophone?

The first meaning that appears in the dictionary of the term allophone refers to that which is expressed in a different language. It is, in this case, an adjective.

For example: “If a group of five men, four speak English and the fifth is allophone, the latter subject will have difficulty understanding conversations remain in the language of Shakespeare”, “The team is Dominican but the coach is allophone, that’s why he has a translator “, ” I consider myself an Argentine allophone writer, since I don’t write in Spanish “.

The concept of allophone, on the other hand, refers to the different variants that may exist of a certain phoneme, according to the location of the phoneme in question in the syllable or in the word or according to the characteristics of the adjacent phonemes.

Said in a simpler way, allophones are the different sounds that a phoneme can adopt according to the context, without changing its value. In our language, the letters G, D and B can have different allophones depending on the particular use.

Take the case of the letter B. It can acquire an occlusive sound, as in the term “combat”, or a fricative sound, as in the word “dawn”. The B, therefore, features two allophones. As you can see, the value of the letter does not change, although the pronunciation of the letter does. The allophones mark these alterations that depend on the context in which the letter appears.

Before continuing, it is necessary to briefly define the concepts related to the types of sounds that consonants can produce. An occlusive consonant, in the first place, generates a sound that obstructs the air flow for a fraction of time until it finally releases the passage. If we think again of the letter B in the word “combat”, we will notice that between the end of the M and the beginning of the A there is a small period of time in which the air stops coming out of the mouth.

On the other hand, the concept of allophone is also related to the fricative consonant, the one that is generated when the articulatory organs narrow or contract, causing an alteration in the passage of air that manifests itself as friction, which can acquire various degrees of turbulence.

In the case of the term “dawn”, the organs that we tighten to pronounce it are the lips, while to say “seal” we take advantage of the upper teeth and the lower lip to reduce the passage of air and give rise to that sound so characteristic of letter F.

Another case of fricative sound occurs when the letter X is pronounced, and here the soft palate and the back of the tongue come into play; for example, in the word “extra”. Two synonyms for fricative are strident and espirante, although at present they are not so frequent.

Our language has more examples of allophones, although not as many as English or Catalan, for example. However, the fundamental problem when identifying them is not the scarcity but the little force that we imprint on the consonants when speaking Spanish, although this varies according to the accent.

The letter D presents a particular case, in which this difficulty is appreciated: in the term “given”, the pronunciation of the D is not the same in both syllables, although the difference is almost imperceptible. In the first syllable the consonant is occlusive, while in the second it is approximate fricative, since it lets air out with a friction that can be heard slightly.