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What is phonological symmetry?

 

Definition
 

Phonological symmetry is the even distribution of phonemes throughout the articulatory possibilities of a given language.

Discussion
 

The inventory of sounds in a given language tends to be symmetrical. Sounds tend to be spread out evenly throughout the articulatory possibilities of a language.

Function
 

The symmetrical patterning of phonemes in language makes the following easier:

 
  • Perception

    Differences between sounds are most easily perceived when

    • sounds are distributed uniformly in the articulatory space (place and manner of articulation), and
    • the extremes of articulatory space are used (particularly for vowels).
  • Production

    It is more efficient to use the same place of articulation or manner of articulation repeatedly.

Example (Spanish): Symmetrical vowel system
 

Here is an example of a symmetrical vowel system:

 
 

Spanish is an example of a symmetrical five vowel system. The five vowel system is the most common among languages of the world.

Example: Asymmetrical vowel system
 

Here is an example of an asymmetrical vowel system that is not known to exist:

 
Instances: Consonant symmetry
 

Consonant systems are symmetrical in their

 
  • points of articulation, and
  • manners of articulation.
 

A symmetrical consonant system is one in which the following occur:

 
  • Phones with the same points of articulation are repeated using several different manners of articulation.

    Example:

    For each voiceless plosive there is a corresponding voiced plosive (for example, [t] and [d]).

  • Phones with the same manners of articulation are repeated using several different points of articulation.

    Example:

    Nasal consonants occur at some of the same points of articulation as other plosives, fricatives, or affricates (for example, [m], [n], [N])

 
  • Complex consonants illustrate symmetry in both place and manner of articulation. For each complex consonant, a language tends to have a corresponding simple consonant at the same point of articulation.
  • Instances: Vowel symmetry
     

    The following three parameters define the articulatory space for vowel sounds:

     
    • Tongue height
    • Point of articulation
    • Rounding
     

    A symmetrical vowel system is one in which vowels are near the extremes of the articulatory space available for the sounds in a given language.

     

    Symmetrical systems tend to be arranged in a “V-shaped” formation on a phone chart.

    See also
     

    Context for this page:

    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

    © 2004 SIL International