What is phonology?

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What is phonology?
Phonology is the study of how sounds are organized and used in natural languages.
The phonological system of a language includes

* an inventory of sounds and their features, and

* rules which specify how sounds interact with each other.

Phonology is just one of several aspects of language. It is related to other aspects such as phonetics, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics.

Here is an illustration that shows the place of phonology in an interacting hierarchy of levels in linguistics:

Comparison: Phonology and phonetics

Phonetics …

Phonology …

Is the basis for phonological analysis.

Is the basis for further work in morphology, syntax, discourse, and orthography design.

Analyzes the production of all human speech sounds, regardless of language.

Analyzes the sound patterns of a particular language by

  • determining which phonetic sounds are significant, and

  • explaining how these sounds are interpreted by the native speaker.

Models of phonology

Different models of phonology contribute to our knowledge of phonological representations and processes:

* In classical phonemics, phonemes and their possible combinations are central.

* In standard generative phonology, distinctive features are central. A stream of speech is portrayed as linear sequence of discrete sound-segments. Each segment is composed of simultaneously occurring features

* In non-linear models of phonology, a stream of speech is represented as multidimensional, not simply as a linear sequence of sound segments. These non-linear models grew out of generative phonology:

    • autosegmental phonology metrical phonology lexical phonology

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.

Phonologists have differing views of the phoneme. Following are the two major views considered here:

* In the American structuralist tradition, a phoneme is defined according to its allophones and environments.

* In the generative tradition, a phoneme is defined as a set of distinctive features.


Here is a chart that compares phones and phonemes:

A phone is …

A phoneme is …

One of many possible sounds in the languages of the world.

A contrastive unit in the sound system of a particular language.

The smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of speech.

A minimal unit that serves to distinguish between meanings of words.

Pronounced in a defined way.

Pronounced in one or more ways, depending on the number of allophones.

Represented between brackets by convention.


[b], [j], [o]

Represented between slashes by convention.


/b/, /j/, /o/

Examples (English): Minimal pair

  • Here are examples of the phonemes /r/ and /l/ occurring in a minimal pair
    * rip

  • lip

The phones [r] and [l] contrast in identical environments and are considered to be separate phonemes. The phonemes /r/ and /l/ serve to distinguish the word rip from the word lip.

Examples (English): Distinctive features
/p/ /i/
-syllabic +consonantal -sonorant +anterior -coronal -voice -continuant -nasal+syllabic -consonantal +sonorant +high -low -back -round +ATR -nasal
What is an allophone?

An allophone is a phonetic variant of a phoneme in a particular language.

* [p] and [pH] are allophones of the phoneme /p/.

* [t] and [tH] are allophones of the phoneme /t/.

What is a phone?

A phone is an unanalyzed sound of a language. It is the smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of speech that is able to be transcribed with an IPA symbol.

What is a minimal pair?

A minimal pair is two words that differ in only one sound.

Sounds which differ: /p/ and /b/

* [lQp] ‘lap’

* [lQb] ‘lab’

Compare: Morpheme-morph-allomorph and phoneme-phone-allophone


The relationship between a morpheme and its morphs and allomorphs is parallel to the relationship between a phoneme and its phones and allophones.


A morpheme is manifested as one or more morphs (surface forms) in different environments. These morphs are called allomorphs.


A phoneme is manifested as one or more phones (phonetic sounds) in different environments. These phones are called allophones.


We have seen how each spoken language has a set of consonant and vowel categories that are used by its speakers and hearers to distinguish the words of the language. The consonants and vowels in turn are combined into larger units, syllables. Syllables are distinguished from one another in terms of the consonants and vowels that they consist of. But syllables can also be distinguished from one another in other ways, and some of these ways are very commonly used contrastively, that is, to distinguish words from each other. We will look at some of these "suprasegmental" features of language in this section. Languages also differ in terms of how consonants and vowels can be combined into syllables, the "phonotactics" of the language, and we will also look at this property of languages in this section.


As we have seen, each spoken language has an "alphabet" of form categories — consonant and vowel phonemes — which are combined to form the syllables that make up words. But languages differ not only in the particular vowel and consonant phonemes they have. They also differ with respect to how the vowels and consonants may be combined to form syllables.

Let's start with simple English syllables consisting of a consonant followed by a vowel; I'll abbreviate this as "CV". First, can any consonant appear in the "C" position? Taking the vowel as the constant /o/, certainly all of the following are possible syllables in English: /po/, /bo/, /mo/, /vo/, /to/, /co/, /∫o/, /ko/, /lo/, /ro/, /wo/, /ho/. But what about /ηo/? A complete search of the English lexicon reveals that there are no English words that have syllables beginning with the phoneme /η/. Although other nasal consonants (/m/ and /n/) and other velar consonants (/k/ and /g/) can appear at the beginnings of syllables, English seems to constrain syllables to not begin with the phoneme /η/.

What about the vowels in a CV syllable? Let's be more specific and assume that the syllable is stressed and comes at the end of an English word. Keeping the consonant as the constant /b/, all of the following seem possible: /bi/, /be/, /bu/, /bo/, /b⊃/, /bay/, /baw/, /b⊃y/. (For speakers who do not make the distinction between /⊃/ and /α/, /bα/ would also be possible.) But what about the following: /bI/, /bε/,: /bI/, /bε/, /bæ/, /bU/, /b^/, /bα/ (for speakers who distinguish /α/ and /⊃/)? None of these syllables seems possible. Again there is apparently a sort of prohibition on the kinds of phonemes that can appear in English syllables. In this case, the most efficient way to state the prohibition is to say that English forbids lax vowels, other than //, from appearing at the ends of syllables (at least stressed syllables at the end of words). Note that /⊃/ presents a problem for the generalization; this is one of the ways in which this vowel does not quite fit into the lax/tense, short/long distinction.

Thus English has constraints on the structure of syllables. Such constraints are referred to as phonotactics. It's beyond our goals to go into English phonotactics in detail, but let's investigate a bit further what the bounds are on English syllables.

What about syllables with more than one consonant at the beginning? In general, clusters of consonants not separated by vowels are more difficult for speakers to produce than consonants that are separated by vowels. This is because the articulators must move from one consonant position to another without opening up in between (because the opening would be realized as a vowel). And the difficulty of particular combinations varies considerably. Thus we should expect more constraints on what is possible in clusters than for single consonants. An examination of the English lexicon reveals that the following consonant clusters can appear at the beginnings of General American English syllables (my accent) if we count the semivowels /w/ and /y/ as consonants.

  1. /tw/, /dw/, /kw/, /gw/

  2. /by/, /py/, /my/, /fy/, /vy/, /ky/, /hy/

  3. /pl/, /bl/, /fl/, /kl/, /gl/, /sl/, /∫l/

  4. /pr/, /br/, /fr/, /θr/, /tr/, /dr/, /kr/, /gr/

  5. /sp/, /st/, /sk/, /sm/, /sn/, /∫p/

  6. /spl/, /spr/, /str/, /skl/, /skr/

We can see some patterns in what is possible. /s/ seems to be special. If we leave it out, we see that all of the clusters end in a sonorant consonant, /w/, /y/, /l/, or /r/. Clusters of three consonants must consist of /s/ followed by a voiceless stop followed by either /l/ or /r/. In fact, for this and other reasons, /l/ and /r/ are often treated as forming a category in their own right.


Coarticulation in phonetics refers to two different phenomena:

* the assimilation of the place of articulation of one speech sound to that of an adjacent speech sound. For example, while the sound /n/ of English normally has an alveolar place of articulation, in the word tenth it is pronounced with a dental place of articulation because the following sound, /θ/, is dental.

* Elision is the omission of one or more sounds (such as a vowel, a consonant, or a whole syllable) in a word or phrase, producing a result that is easier for the speaker to pronounce. Sometimes, sounds may be elided for euphonic effect.

Assimilation (linguistics)

Assimilation is a regular and frequent sound change process by which a phoneme changes to match an adjacent phoneme in a word. A common example of assimilation is vowels being 'nasalized' before nasal consonants as it is difficult to change the shape of the mouth sufficiently quickly.

If the phoneme changes to match the preceding phoneme, it is progressive assimilation (also left-to-right, perseveratory, or preservative assimilation). If the phoneme changes to match the following phoneme, it is regressive assimilation (also right-to-left or anticipatory assimilation). If there is a mutual influence between the two phonemes, it is reciprocal assimilation. In the latter case the two phonemes can fuse completely and give a birth to a different one. This is called a coalescence.

The notion was identified by Sanskrit Grammarians as Sandhi or fusion.

Assimilation may result in the neighbouring segments becoming identical, yielding a geminate consonant; this is complete assimilation. In other cases, only some features of phonemes assimilate, e.g. voicing or place of articulation; this is partial assimilation.

Tonal languages may exhibit various degrees of tone assimilation, while sign languages also exhibit assimilation when the characteristics of neighbouring phonemes may be mixed.


Complete assimilation:

  • The word assimilation itself (from Latin ad + simile)

  • illegible (in + legible)

  • suppose (sub + pose)

Partial assimilation:

  • voicing: the pronunciation of absurd as apsurd or abzurd

  • devoicing: bats (bat + the plural morpheme s, which is underlyingly /z/)

  • place of articulation: impossible (in + possible), incomplete (in which n represents the velar nasal)


Elision is the omission of one or more sounds (such as a vowel, a consonant, or a whole syllable) in a word or phrase, producing a result that is easier for the speaker to pronounce. Sometimes, sounds may be elided for euphonic effect.

Elision is normally unintentional, but it may be deliberate. The result may be impressionistically described as "slurred" or "muted."

An example of deliberate elision occurs in Latin poetry as a stylistic device. Under certain circumstances, such as one word ending in a vowel and the following word beginning in a vowel, the words may be elided together. Elision was a common device in the works of Catullus. For example, the opening line of Catullus 3 is: "Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque", but would be read as "Lugeto Veneres Cupidinesque".

The elided form of a word or phrase may become a standard alternative for the full form, if used often enough. In English, this is called a contraction, such as can't from cannot. Contraction differs from elision in that contractions are set forms that have morphologized, but elisions are not.

A synonym for elision is syncope. This term is most often associated with the elision of vowels between consonants (e.g., Latin tabula → Spanish tabla). Another form of elision is aphesis, which means elision at the beginning of a word (generally of an unstressed vowel).

The opposite of elision is epenthesis, whereby sounds are inserted into a word to ease pronunciation
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