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What is complementary distribution?

 

Definition
 

Complementary distribution is the mutually exclusive relationship between two phonetically similar segments. It exists when one segment occurs in an environment where the other segment never occurs.

Discussion
 

The rationale for complementary distribution comes from one of the principles of phonemics:

 
  • Sounds tend to be modified by their environments.
  • Source:

    Pike 1947 58

  •  

    A phoneme is made up of certain features that are basic to it. When this phoneme occurs in certain phonetic environments, one or more of its features may undergo changes caused by those environments.

    Examples (English)
     

    The phones [p] and [pH] are in complementary distribution. [pH] occurs syllable-initially in a stressed syllable, but [p] never does, as demonstrated here:

     

    Phonetic representation

    Gloss

    Underlying representation

    pHEpp«&u0279;

    'pepper'

    /pEpp«&u0279;/

    spIn

    'spin'

    /spIn/

    Examples: Cashinahua (Brazil/Peru)
     

    The phones [b] and [B] are in complementary distribution. [b] occurs only at the beginning of words, while [B] occurs between vowels, as demonstrated here:

     

    Phonetic representation

    Gloss

    Underlying representation

    baka

    ‘fish’

    /baka/

    taBa

    ‘washboard’

    /taba/

     
    Source:

    Kensinger 1963 cited in Burquest and Payne 1993 30


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    Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0 published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 2003. [Ordering information.]

    Page content last modified: 5 January 2004

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