Glossary of Linguistic Terms

Complementary Distribution

Definition: 

Complementary distribution is the mutually exclusive relationship between two phonetically similar segments. It exists when one segment occurs in an environment where the other segment never occurs.

Discussion: 

The rationale for complementary distribution comes from one of the principles of phonemics: 

  • Sounds tend to be modified by their environments.

A phoneme is made up of certain features that are basic to it. When this phoneme occurs in certain phonetic environments, one or more of its features may undergo changes caused by those environments.

Examples: 

(English)

The phones [p] and [pH] are in complementary distribution. [pH] occurs syllable-initially in a stressed syllable, but [p] never does, as demonstrated here:

Phonetic representation

Gloss

Underlying representation

pHEpp«&u0279;

'pepper'

/pEpp«&u0279;/

spIn

'spin'

/spIn/

Cashinahua (Brazil/Peru)

The phones [b] and [B] are in complementary distribution. [b] occurs only at the beginning of words, while [B] occurs between vowels, as demonstrated here:

Phonetic representation

Gloss

Underlying representation

baka

‘fish’

/baka/

taBa

‘washboard’

/taba/

Glossary Hierarchy