I was using English words to teach Malayalam consonants when I noticed that Malayalam has separate characters for the alveolar and retroflex versions of the same consonant. But I also noticed that these retroflex versions do exist in English as well (I could be wrong), just that there are no separate representations for them.

So, to teach my students the difference between an alveolar n and a retroflex n using English words, I told them that generally in English if its preceded by front vowels, the consonant gets an alveolar tongue placement, and retroflex if its preceded by back vowels.

e.g. the tongue placement for the n in fan, fence, fin is different from that in phone, funny.

Similarly for the l sounds in fill, fell, ally Vs fall, full And so on for t (pat vs pot) and d (adapt vs odd) as well.

However, I dont see a representation for these retroflex-y sounds in the 44-phonemes of English. Could I be wrong? Could this just be attributed to me being a native of South Asia where 'retroflexing' is very common?

1 Answer 1


According to the definition of the term "phoneme", even if two distinct sounds (phones) are present in a language, they are not necessarily distinct phonemes. To be different phonemes, it must be possible for the use of one sound vs. the other to mark a difference in meaning.

Some linguists require this to be demonstrated by a specific pair of actual words with contrasting meanings where the only difference is the use of one sound vs. the other (called a "minimal pair"), such as sit and hit, which show that /s/ and /h/ are distinct phonemes in English. Other linguists allow for phoneme contrast to be demonstrated by "near-minimal pairs", where there may be other differences, but speakers agree in consistently using one sound vs. the other in different words based on on their to the meaning.

But there are no minimal pairs or even near-minimal pairs for alveolar n and retroflex n in English. Therefore, they aren't considered separate phonemes. The same goes for alveolar and retroflex versions of l, t, d. While you may be right about where these sounds occur in English (I can't tell), the pattern that you noticed would be about the phonetics of English pronunciation, not about the phonemes used in the English sound system.

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