Phonology – how to understand it

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Phonology – definition

phonology Phonology is the study of the sounds in any language.

redbtn The smallest unit of sound is known as a phoneme.

redbtn The phonemic alphabet is a complete set of symbols, each of which represents a single sound belonging to a specific language.


redbtn Here are some of the phonemic symbols representing sounds in English [received pronunciation]:

/ æ / = the ‘a’ in hat

/ k / = the ‘c’ in cap


redbtn Phonology is a study of how sounds are organised in languages.

redbtn It is the province of linguists who study language varieties and who chart language change and development.

redbtn Phonemic symbols are used in all dictionaries to indicate the received pronunciation of each word.

redbtn Phonology is also used in therapeutic fields such as audiology and speech therapy.

redbtn NB! Phonetics [as distinct from phonology] is the study of how speech sounds are made, transmitted, and received.

redbtn The International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA] is a set of symbols which attempts to represent every unit of sound contained in every known language. [In this context the symbols are known as phonetic symbols.]

redbtn For instance, the words ‘butter’, ‘carriage’, and ‘chocolate’ (spoken in received pronunciation) would be represented as follows:

Butter = phonol-1
Carriage = phonol-2
Chocolate = phonol-3

redbtn The term phonemic symbol is used to refer to a set of sounds representing a specific language such as English, Turkish, Urdu, Icelandic, or any other.

redbtn It is as if there were a box containing all phonetic symbols for all languages, and when we select those which serve our own language we call that selection a set of phonemes.

redbtn A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in any language.

redbtn It is represented in writing by placing a phonetic symbol between slanted lines. This indicates that it is part of a language.

redbtn For instance the simple word ‘pig’ would be represented by
/p/I/g/ because it is composed of three separate sounds.

redbtn Phonemes are the sounds of a language in received pronunciation. Regional varieties of that language may use sounds which differ from the RP version — and the symbols used to represent the dialect version are known as allophones.

redbtn An example of an allophone in English is seen in the vowel sound of words such as ‘bath’, ‘path’ and ‘castle’. The phoneme for the RP version of these sounds would be a: — representing the long open vowel b/a:/ð in ‘bath’.

redbtn The northern dialect version of the same sound in the context of those same words would be an allophone represented as b/æ/ð in ‘bath’.

redbtn Even though the symbol used is a phoneme representing RP, it becomes known as an allophone in the context of regional pronunciation.

redbtn It is important when attempting to grasp the concept of phonology and phonetics, to put to aside all notions of the orthodox spelling system.

redbtn An introduction to phonetics is useful to students of language in understanding the important distinction between speech and writing.
redbtn Phonetics also highlights the differences between spelling and pronunciation. When we learn to read [that is, to understand writing] we are learning a code. This is related to the spoken language in a crucially significant way, but in its nature and function it is distinct and discrete.

redbtn Phonology in context. The pronunciation system in English is extremely varied, and this variety springs from context.

redbtn The geographical context or the social context can be seen to determine the speech style of both individuals and of groups of speakers.

redbtn On a smaller scale, certain words themselves are context-specific in terms of pronunciation.

redbtn For example, ‘hand’ is pronounced roughly as it is spelt if it is spoken in isolation as a single word. However, in ‘handbag’ it is pronounced ‘ham’ or ‘han’.

redbtn The reason for this is ease of articulation. Clusters of consonants [three in succession in ‘handbag’] are difficult to pronounce.

redbtn If ‘hand’ is spoken after the adjective ‘left’ in ‘lefthand’, the initial aspirant [h] of ‘hand’ is to varying degrees eliminated to produce the sequence ‘left’and’.

redbtn Similarly, if the word ‘crisp’ is spoken in isolation, it is pronounced as written. If the plural ‘s’ is added however, the ‘p’ almost disappears to produce the sequence ‘criss’.

redbtn The definite article itself is subject to phonological variation which is determined by its context. That is, if it precedes a vowel sound as in ‘the other’ ‘the’ is pronounced ‘thee’. If it precedes a consonant, or is articulated in isolation, it is pronounced ‘the’, with the narrower vowel sound.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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