The Problem of Distinctive Sign in Phonological Description of Spanish Language Consonance Subsystem



The aim of this work is to analyse the teaching situation of Oral Standard Spanish. First, the indications on pronunciation present in the official and unofficial normative documents, as well as in the descriptive publications are revised. Secondly, it is presented the utility of applying this knowledge to the teaching of phonetics and to the teaching and correction of pronunciation as a part of the oral expression. In third place, the contexts in which it is necessary a good command of pronunciation are presented, and the available materials to achieve this goal are also examined.

General Information

Keywords: differential signs, phonological opposition system, Spanish, consonance subsystem

Journal rubric: Linguodidactics and Innovations.Psychological Basis of Learning Languages and Cultures.

Article type: scientific article


Received: 01.09.2022


For citation: Murashkina O.V. The Problem of Distinctive Sign in Phonological Description of Spanish Language Consonance Subsystem [Elektronnyi resurs]. Âzyk i tekst = Language and Text, 2022. Vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 62–65. DOI: 10.17759/langt.2022090307.

Full text

Phonological description of any language system is based on theory of differential signs. It’s worth noting that today there’s no universal theory of differential signs. Not structural nor generative linguistics propose unique classification of these. Mostly meaningful theories on which linguists of around the world stops, has been proposed by P. Jacobson, N. Homsky and F. Halle. Spanish linguists, in their effort of describing language phonological system, also depends on named theories, but uses only some of its characteristics. If we compare classifications of phonemes made by Spanish linguists, we’ll see that there’s no universal opinion about theory and origin of differential sign and question about hierarchy of differential signs is an object of constant discussions.

Representative of structural linguistics Alarcos Llorach defining phoneme follow its predecessors:

“el fonema es la unidad lingüística más pequeña, desprovista de significado, formada por un haz simultáneo de rasgos distintivos” – “Phoneme is minimal linguistic unit, has no sense and has been made by bunch of distinctive signs”. In other words, phoneme as it is has no sense, but set of distinctive signs permit us to differentiate each language phonemes. And which is minimal set of relevant signs for every of phonemes in phonological description of Spanish language consonant subsystem? Following opinion of N.S. Trubetskoy, founder of phonological opposition theory A. Llorach builds the Spanish language phonological opposition system, which, as in any other language, has its own specifics. Phonological oppositions serve not only for paradigm identification of phonemes, but also for defining inventory of allophones, opening functional productivity of each phoneme. In Spanish language opposition r/rr is distinctive because it serves for differentiate sense in words: bara/barra, coro/corro, pera/perra and the opposition of occlusive [b] and fricative [b] is not distinctive because changing one of the phones not changing the sense of word, and pronouncing difference is conditioned only by its places in word: /sebo- beso/ - [se[b]o – [b]eso]. Thereby phones r/rr is different phonemes, and phones [b] and [b] is variations or allophones of one and same phoneme. Phones [b] and [b] opposed to unvoiced /p/, voiced character of consonant /b/ defined by his articulation is phonologically relevant, permit to oppose itself to unvoiced /p/, as signs occlusive/fricative is not relevant and not differentiate these phones as two different phonemes.


                [b]                                  [ß]                                         [v]

Pic. 1. Variations of phoneme /b/ has different points of articulation

If we look on picture we’ll see that variations of phoneme /b/ has different points of articulation, depends on combinative position.

But in the same time regardless of articulation point of phoneme /p/, depends on her combinative position: starting –pan, intervocalic –sepa, consonant group –pt: apto, septiembre, last part of word –estop, phoneme /p/ opposed to phoneme /b/ by sonorousness in this situation characterized by absence of sonorousness and phoneme /b/ by presence of this sign. Phonological contrast between [p]/[b - b] allow us to define this two phonemes as phonological opposition. As we see, sign of sonorousness is differential for phonemes /b/ and /p/. Also with that among Spanish linguists there is no single opinion about distinguishing character of sonorousness. Till now discussions are in progress about nature of distinctive sign. And among the questions is one: in which terms can we define differential sign: from point of view of articulation, acoustic or perception?

On the plane of phonology in Spanish exist correlative set of unvoiced and occlusive consonants and voiced occlusive consonants: /p-t-k/ y /b-d-g/.                       

Many linguists unconditionally agrees about sign of sonorousness as differential in this correlative set, but also many leading linguists has doubts that articulation and acoustic correlates of sonorousness has real meaning for differentiation of this phonemes. To confirm what was said let’s analyze the research of certain linguists. Alarkos Llorach, admitting that consonants /p-t-k/ is in opposition to /b-d-g/, suppose that semantic meaning of sonorousness attribute only to proportionality of relations /p/ k /b/, /t/ k /d/ and /k/ k /g/, independently of phonetic realities, which distinguish this phonemes couples. William Cressey in his work “Spanish Phonology and Morphology” (1978) about phonological order of Spanish language has admit that sonorousness serves as distinguishing sign for certain consonants, but researching sonorousness with help of different methods, he make a conclusion that in absence of acoustic and articulation correlates of sonorousness percepients continue to distinguish /p/ from /b/, /t/ from /d/ and /k/ from /g/.  Martinez Celdran has the experiment where first 1000 Hz in record, which caused sonorousness, has been downed. Nevertheless listeners continue to distinguish both series of phonemes. That allow Martinez to make a conclusion that articulation tension and not the vibration of vocal cords is that phonetic sign, which allow listener to distinguish series of phonemes /p-t-k/ and /b-d-g/. In 1994 Soto Barba lead the experiment in course of which expression made by whisper has been recorded. As we know, in sounds producing by whisper does not participate vibration of vocal cords. Nevertheless listeners distinguish that series of phonemes. And that allow Barba to conclude: consonants relative duration is that acoustic sign, which appear as distinguisher in this two series.

Emilio Perez (1998) made an experiment in which using the method of analysis an synthesis in speech stream sink low frequencies curve in series /b-d-g/ and make low frequencies curve for series /p-t-k/, change meanings of absolute duration /p-t-k/ for /b-d-g/ and vice versa. And he present listeners with that synthetic expressions. In result he’s been reveal that presence or absence of low frequencies has no influence on this two series. Tendency (non constant) revealed to mixing phoneme with his opposition in hearing expressions, in which values of absolute duration has been changed. That allow Perez to conclude: an absolute duration also is distinguisher in this series of phonemes.

Summarize all that’s been said, we can make a conclusion:

From time of F. Saussure and N.S.Trubezkoy we know exactly that opposition between two phonemes allow us to distinguish phonemes of exact language, which itself is abstraction but owns set of differential signs. Nevertheless until now question about theory of differential sign stay unclear. Answering that question possible only after thorough research of how sound in language functions and which legislations is define its interactions.


  1. Alarcos llorach E. Fonología Española. 1971. Madrid: Gredos, 250 p.
  2. Cressey W. Spanish Phonology and Morphology. A generative view. 1978. Washington, Georgetown University Press, 190 p.
  3. Gili gaya S. Elementos de fonética general. 1978. Madrid: Gredos, 196 p.
  4. Jakobson R., Halle M. Principios fundamentales del lenguaje. 1973. Madrid: Ayuso, 147 p.
  5. Pérez H.E. La noción de rasgo. El caso de las consonantes oclusivas del español // Onomázein Revista de lingüística filología y traducción. 2001. № 6. P. 327-336. DOI:10.7764/onomazein.6.19
  6. Martínez Celdrán, E. ¿Hasta qué punto es importante la sonoridad en la discriminación auditiva de las obstruyentes mates del castellano? // Estudios de fonética experimental. 1984. Vol. 1. P. 243-291. URL: (Data obrashcheniya: 15.07.2022)

Information About the Authors

Olga V. Murashkina, PhD in Philology, Associate Professor of the Department of Language Training of Public Administration Personnel, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Moscow, Russia, ORCID:, e-mail:



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