I get a ton of emails. I mean, a ton. I have several email accounts, and it’s a part-time job to keep up with them all. Of course, nowadays, I also access email on my phone. I know I am not alone in this. Needless to say, a lot of the emails I get are language questions. Here’s one I got this morning, and I decided to turn it into a LEX Q&A, so more people can benefit from the dialogue than just us two. (The email has been edited for formatting and asides).
[W]hat is the final phoneme in the word cat when it is at the end of a sentence? “I saw a little cat.” It’s not the same as at the beginning of tip, but is it just an allophone of /t/? I was reading about the “flap” and it doesn’t seem like it would be a flap, because my tongue stops on the roof of the mouth rather than tapping there. But I’m not sure how the flap works either. I feel as though when I say little I go straight from /ɪ/ to /l/. But there’s a difference between the way I say little and Lil. If I try to say Lil as a two syllable word with just the /l/ in the second syllable that’s still not the same as little so something is happening with my tongue, but I can’t figure it out. It almost feels like I’m squishing air out of the sides of my mouth in between the /i/ and /l/ and pushing my tongue more forcefully up with the final /l/ in little.
Aaaaaaand, my response: What a great question! And an important one, too. One of the biggest problems with the decades-old emphasis on “phonemic awareness” is that most teachers don’t really understand what a phoneme is. They think it’s a “minimal unit of sound” or some such; it’s not. It is minimal, and it is a unit, and it does have to do with language as it is pronounced, but it’s not actually a sound. Moreover — and this is critical — it’s distinctive. What this means is that, while it carries no meaning itself (the /b/ in /bɪt/ doesn’t mean anything), it is distinctive for meaning — it differentiates meaning — from other phonemes (the /b/ in /bɪt/ and the /p/ in /pɪt/ distinguish the meanings of those two words. That all happens in your head.
Elsewhere, however, there are different physical realizations of pronounced words and utterances. Those physical realizations have structures that can be studied, like all physical things. The phoneme /t/ is conceptual, a psychological category, container, or class — choose your metaphor — with several different possible members. Those members — all the members of the phoneme /t/ — are its allophones. Some physical realizations of /t/are aspirated. That is, they have a little release of air when the tongue is released from the roof of the mouth. That’s like in the word top. Phonemically, we would represent this as /tɑp/, but phonetically, it’s [tʰɑp]. If we put a /s/ in front of the word, however, the aspiration isn’t there: [stɑp]. You can see and feel the difference if you pronounce those two words aloud while holding a kleenex in front of your face. But phones aren’t necessarily distinctive for meaning: if you were in my car and yelled [stʰɑp], I would totally slam on the brakes. The [tʰ] and the [t] are allophones of the same phoneme, /t/. Other allophones of /t/ in English include [t ̚ ], [ʔ], and [ɾ], also known as the “flap.”
So, to answer your question directly, the phoneme at the end of cat is the same as the phoneme at the beginning of tip, but they are different phones. They are phonologically the same, but phonetically different. Yes, that makes them allophones of the same phoneme, different members of the same class.
Another allophone is the flap [ɾ] in your pronunciation of little. A Brit would be likely to say [lɪtʰəl], while an American more likely to say [lɪɾḷ]. The difference between Lil and little is that flap — your tongue briefly taps the alveolar ridge, before releasing the [l] laterally. There’s a co-articulation from the [ɾ] to the [l]: both of them have an alveolar place of articulation. You don’t have to move your tongue to get from one to the other. They are also both voiced. The difference between them is in their manner of articulation: [ɾ] is a flap, and [l] is a lateral approximant. That lateral refers to the release of the air out the sides of your tongue, just as you articulated in your question. The “more forceful” push of your tongue to the alveolar ridge in little? That’s the flap.
Phones and phonemes are not for sissies, but a clear understanding of the difference is absolutely critical for scholars and teachers of the written word. Writing systems’ representations of pronunciation may target syllables, or it may target phonemes, or both. But spelling never, ever targets phones; there’s no such thing as a non-phonetic word, or rather, all written words are non-phonetic. When a child writes <chree> instead of <tree>, she’s not mishearing the word; she’s ascribing the physical phone she is saying or hearing to the wrong phoneme in her head. *That’s* phonemic awareness, but teachers may be at a loss to remedy it unless they have clarity about what’s going on phonetically in that word.
No pithy ending in this post, no clever turn of phrase. No LEXlover’s delight. What do you want from me? It was an email. If you’re still reading this far, good for you, and you’re welcome.