I am confused about the relationship between allophones and complementary distribution. I learned that similar phones in complementary distribution are usually allophones of the same phoneme. If that's the case, are all allophones in complementary distribution? if not,could you give me a example? Thanks for your answer.

1 Answer 1


Not all allophones are in complementary distribution.

Different speakers may use different phones as allophones of a single phoneme. For example, the /r/ sound in English has a number of different pronunciations, many of which can occur in the same context as each other, such as "molar" r vs "apical" r.

There can also be "free variation" within the speech of a single speaker between different allophones of a phoneme.

For example, if we consider a speaker who uses two pronunciations of "cat, [kʰæt] and [kʰæʔ], the phones [t] and [ʔ] are not in complementary distribution for this speaker because both can occur in the same context. They are allophones because the difference between them doesn't correspond to any phonemic difference: both represent the phoneme sequence /kæt/.

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