Phonemic Analysis


A phonemic analysis tries to answer the question:
What is a permissible (phonological) word in a particular language?

A ‘classical’ phonemic analysis consists of:
i. an inventory of phonemes
ii. a list of allophonic rules (including allophones of course)
iii. a statement of phonotactics (environments) — which phonemes go where
These three steps provide an answer to the first question.

A phonemic analysis will reveal if the studied phonemes / allophones of the particular language are in:
– complimentary distribution
– contrastive distribution
– free variation

complimentary distribution: phonemes are said to be in complementary distribution if they never occur in the same phonetic environment

contrastive distribution: phonemes occur in the same phonetic environment where the distinction in meaning is due to the particular phoneme (form minimal pairs)

free variation: phonemes are said to be in free variation if they do not affect the meaning of the word

The full method of phonemic analysis can be broken down as follows:

1. Do an inventory of phones (transcribed sounds)

2. Identify phonetically similar (‘suspicious’) pairs

3. Compare the distributions of suspicious pairs, looking for complementary or contrasting distribution in terms of:
– neighbouring segments
– syllable and word structure
– stress
– non-neighbouring segments

4. Group complementary suspicious pairs (or triplets, etc) into phonemes

5. Do an inventory of phonemes

6. Describe allophonic variation in terms of rules

7. Describe the phonotactics of phonemes (including syllable and word structures

8. In choosing an allophone to name the phoneme after, ie its basic allophone or basic variant, choose the one with the broadest range of occurrence that allows for the simplest allophonic statement. If this is not clear, choose the one that occurs word-initially.

9. Notation for statements of allophonic variation:
(Phonemic Analysis – Flowchart)

Sample phonemic analysis

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  • Hiiii,

    I accidentally came across your site and it was really inspirational……especially your phonemic analysis flow chart…it made a difficult subject area easy for me,



  • Thank you for creating this website, this is helping me a lot. I am interested in phonemic analysis but am not a linguist, this explains the process perfectly.

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