Specializations > Phonetics and Phonology

Variant, alternate, allophone


Is there any linguistic distinction between "variant", "alternate", and "allophone" in phonology?

I think allophone is the only strict phonological term in that list.

When you use alternate/variant in the realm of phonology, you're just using them as ordinary English words as a description of a pattern; they're not constrained with a linguistic definition in that environment in the same way allophone is. You can say an allophone is an alternate or a variant of another sound in a differing phonetic context, but you can still easily say - in comparison to an alveolar nasal - that the bilabial variant is [m]. That isn't saying anything about [m] and [n] being allophones though you can use variant as a way of describing an allophone in some contexts. It's just the ordinary English usage being employed, not a linguistics term.

Thanks! That was kind of my hunch, but I was a bit unsure whether "variant", and especially "alternate", had some technical meaning.

I agree with what lx said.

'allophone' is a technical term; the other two are not. However, 'variant' is (to me) more appropriate for describing sounds than 'alternate'-- I don't remember coming across that usage.

By implication, you might find that using 'variant' suggests free variation (non-contrastive variation) simply because you aren't using allophone, possibly suggesting that 'allophone' doesn't apply.

So I am familiar with 'variant' being used for:
1. Cross-variety comparison (individuals, dialects, etc.) where one variety uses X and another variety uses Y. This is especially common in (obviously) sociolinguistic research, but also things like descriptive grammars comparing dialects.
2. A form in free variation with another. English syllable-final Ts have several variants-- aspirated, unrelated, glottalized, etc.
3. I can't say I've come across it used much in historical research even though in theory it would apply. (It might be used to discuss historical dialects, but not in the sense of "the historical variant of modern X was Y". For that I'd expect "form", "sound" or "realization".)

'Allophone' is always used specifically for synchronic phonologically motivated contrastive sounds within a single grammar.


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