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Phonology

Phonology is the study of the sound system of a language. A language's sound system is made up of a set of phonemes which are used according to phonological rules.

In this article, we'll look at:

  • What phonology is
  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonology in the English language and
  • Examples of phonology in linguistics
    • Assimilation, dissimilation, insertion, and deletion

Phonology meaning

Phonology describes sound contrasts which create differences in meaning within a language. Phonological systems are made up of phonemes (we'll come back to phonemes in a bit), and each language has its own phonological system. This means that the study of phonology is language-specific.

  • For example, the phoneme /ɛ/ is different from the phoneme /i:/, so if we use the word set [sɛt] instead of seat [si:t], the meaning of the word will change.

Note: slash marks are used to indicate a phoneme /t/ (an abstract segment i.e. the representation of the sound), as opposed to the square brackets [t], used to indicate a phone (a physical segment i.e. the actual sound produced) .

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to be aware of, identify and manipulate phonological units (phonemes) in elements of spoken language such as syllables and words.

Phonological awareness comes from the analysis of the following language elements:

  • Phonemes
  • Dialects and accents
  • Phonotactics.

Phonemes

A phoneme is the smallest unit of meaningful sound. Phonemes are the basic phonological units and form the building blocks of speech sounds. Phonemes are single sounds represented by a single written symbol.

Symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are used to represent phonemes. The IPA is a system of symbols where each possible speech sound has a representative written symbol.

Minimal pairs

In Phonology, you can use minimal pairs to distinguish phonemes from each other.

A minimal pair is when two words have different meanings but only one sound (or phonemic) difference.

For example:

  • mire /maɪə/ and mile /maɪl/.
  • bad /bæd/ and bed /bɛd/.
  • crowd /kraʊd/ and cloud /klaʊd/.
  • rock /rɒk/ and lock /lɒk/.

As you can see, these words are very similar, but each pair contains one phonemic difference which creates different meanings.

The rules for identifying minimal pairs are:

  • The words in the pair must have the same number of sounds.

  • Two or more words in the pairs must be identical in every sound except for one.

  • In each word, the sounds must be in the same position.

  • The words must have different meanings.

Dialects and accents of English

People can pronounce sounds in different ways. This can depend on multiple factors, for example:

  • Social class
  • Ethnic group
  • Speech or voice disorders
  • Education
  • Geographical area

Accent and dialect are a result of all these factors.

Dialects are variations of the same language spoken by people in particular areas or social groups. Dialects differ in pronunciation, grammatical patterns, and vocabulary. It is important to remember that whilst these factors impact speech, people can have different dialects and speak the same language.

  • For example, Scottish, Irish, Yorkshire, Cockney, Welsh English, may all be said to be dialects of the UK English language.

  • Regional dialects may differ in their pronunciation or use particular grammatical patterns or vocabulary. For example, the British English dialect does not pronounce the /r/ in words like 'car' [ka:] whereas the American English dialect often pronounces the /r/. This is called rhoticity.

Accents have developed because of regional phonological differences. Sometimes accents are based on the pronunciation of words by non-native speakers. A foreign accent is marked by the phonology of other languages.

For example,

  • The word potato: - In British English it is pronounced po-tayh-to [pəˈteɪtəʊ].- In American English it is pronounced po-tay-to [pəˈteɪˌtoʊ].
  • The word laughter:- In British English it is pronounced la-fte [ˈlɑːftə].- In American English it is pronounced la-fter [ˈlæftər].
  • The word banana:- In British English it is pronounced be-na-na [bəˈnɑːnə].- In American English it is pronounced be-nah-na [bəˈnænə].

Phonotactics

One of the branches of phonology is phonotactics.

Phonotactics is the study of the rules governing the possible phoneme sequences in a language.

- Oxford English Dictionary

Within phonotactics, we can look at syllables. A syllable is a phonological unit that involves one or more phonemes. Syllables can show us how phonemes appear in particular sequences.

Each syllable has:

  • a nucleus - always a vowel,
  • an onset and a coda - usually consonants.

Let's have a look at an example:

In the word cat /kaet/, /k/ is the onset, /ae/ is the nucleus and /t/ is the coda.

These are the rules concerning phoneme sequences in syllables:

  • The nucleus of a syllable is essential for the word and is the vowel in the middle of the syllable.
  • The onset is not always present but you can find it before the nucleus if it is.
  • The coda is also not always present but you can find it after the nucleus if it is.

These phonotactic rules are specific to the English language as phonology is language-specific. Other languages will have different phonotactic rules.

Phonology in the English language

As we've said, each language has its own phonology. That is, its own set of phonemes. These phoneme sets are often shown through phonemic charts.

A phonemic chart for a language contains all of the phonemes that exist in that language. It is much more specific than the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) chart which includes all possible speech sounds across all languages.

Phonological rules

Each language's phonological system contains rules which govern the pronunciation of phonemes.

Phonological rules are related to the spoken or written principles which control the changes of sounds during speech.

  • These describe the process of articulation (how a speaker produces speech sounds stored in the brain).
  • Phonological rules help us understand which sounds change, what they change to, and where the change happens.

Phonological rules can be divided into four types: assimilation, dissimilation, insertion, and deletion.

Examples of phonology in linguistics

We'll now have a look at the phonological rules: assimilation, dissimilation, insertion and deletion. Examples of these rules occurring in the English language are given below.

Assimilation

Assimilation is the process of changing one feature of a sound to make it similar to another.

This rule can be applied to the English plural system:

  • The -s can change from voiced to voiceless depending on whether the preceding consonant is voiced or unvoiced.

So, the English plural -s can be pronounced in different ways depending on the word it is part of, for example:

  • In the word snakes, the letter “s” is pronounced /s/.
  • In the word baths, the letter “s” is pronounced /z/.
  • In the word dresses, the letter “s” is pronounced /ɪz/.

Dissimilation

Dissimilation is the process of changing one feature of a sound to make it different.

This type of rule makes two sounds more distinguishable. It can help non-native speakers to pronounce words.

  • The pronunciation of the word chimney [ˈʧɪmni] as chimley [ˈʧɪmli], with the change of [n] to an [l].

Insertion

Insertion is the process of adding an extra sound between two others.

For example, we usually insert a voiceless stop between a nasal and a voiceless fricative to make it easier for English speakers to pronounce a word.

  • In the word strength /strɛŋθ/, we add the sound “k” and it becomes /strɛŋkθ/.

  • In the word hamster /hæmstə/, we add the sound “p” and it becomes /hæmpstə/.

Deletion

Deletion is the process of not pronouncing a sound (consonant, vowel, or whole syllable) present in a word or phrase, to make it easier to say.

For example:

In the phrase “you and me” [ju: ənd mi:] it is possible not to say the sound /d/.

  • You and me [ju:ənmi:].

This also occurs in some words:

  • /h/ in him [ɪm].
  • /f/ in fifth [fɪθ].

Phonology - Key takeaways

  • Phonology is the study of the “sound system” of language. It refers to the phonemes used in a language and how these are organised.

  • A phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound.

  • Dialects are variations of language associated with a geographic area and social class. Accents feature regional phonological or phonetic differences.

  • Phonotactics studies the constraining rules of phoneme combinations.

  • Each language has a phonological system (set of phonemes) which can be shown in a phonemic chart.

  • Phonological rules (assimilation, dissimilation, insertion and deletion) help us understand which sounds change, what they change to, and where the change happens.

Frequently Asked Questions about Phonology

Phonology studies the patterns, rules, and organization of the sound units in a particular language. In phonology, we discuss the sounds of a language, how they can be associated with each other and create words, and explain why some these are important. 

Phonological awareness is the ability to be aware of, identify and manipulate phonological units (phonemes) in elements of spoken language such as syllables and words. 

Phonology studies the sounds of a language. It helps speakers understand and produce words, as without knowing the right articulation of a word, it is impossible to pronounce it. 

Phonological rules can be divided into four types: assimilation, dissimilation, insertion, and deletion. 

In phonology, we deal with phonemes. These are the smallest meaningful units of sound. 

Final Phonology Quiz

Question

What is Phonology? 

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Answer

The study of the sound system of a language. 

Show question

Question

True or False: The consonant /t/ has only one type of sound.

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Answer

False: The consonant /t/ can have different ways of being pronounced, but the same way of being transcribed.

Show question

Question

True or False: Slash marks are used to indicate phonemes. 


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Answer

True. Slash marks // are used to indicate phonemes, while we use square maks [ ] for phones.



Show question

Question

What does phonology analyze? 


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Answer

All of them

Show question

Question

What is a Phoneme?

Show answer

Answer

The smallest distinctive sound unit of a language.

Show question

Question

True or False: To determine phonemes, you can use minimal pairs. 


Show answer

Answer

True. A minimal pair is when two words have different meanings but only one sound differs between them.

Show question

Question

True or False: Accents are forms of a language that contrast in pronunciation and vocabulary.


Show answer

Answer

False: Accents are developed because of regional phonological or phonetic differences. While dialects are forms of a language that contrast in pronunciation and vocabulary.

Show question

Question

What is phonotactics?


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Answer

Phonotactics is the study of the rules governing the possible phoneme sequences in a language.

Show question

Question

True or False: Phonology studies the rules and organization of the sound system.


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Answer

True!

Show question

Question

True or False: Phonological rules do not involve sounds and their changes.


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Answer

False: Phonological rules involve the changes of a sound, what they change to, and where the changes happen.

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Question

What is dissimilation?


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Answer

The change of one feature with another to get less similar.

Show question

Question

Which items determine the pronunciation of a sound?


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Answer

All of them

Show question

Question

True or False: In the word baths, the letter “s” is pronounced as /s/. 


Show answer

Answer

False: It is pronounced as /z/.

Show question

Question

True or False: Crowd and cloud are minimal pairs.


Show answer

Answer

True!

Show question

Question

True or False: the word potato has only one way of being pronounced.


Show answer

Answer

False: It can be pronounced in more than one or two ways, in particular in a British accent and an American accent.

Show question

Question

What is phonological awareness?


Show answer

Answer

The ability to be aware of, identify and manipulate phonological units (phonemes) in elements of spoken language such as syllables and words.

Show question

Question

What element does a syllable always have?


Show answer

Answer

Nucleus

Show question

Question

How are language phoneme sets often shown?


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Answer

Phonemic Charts

Show question

Question

What are the four phonological rules?


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Answer

  • Assimilation
  • Dissimilation
  • Insertion
  • Deletion


Show question

Question

What is assimilation?


Show answer

Answer

The process of changing one feature of a sound to make it similar to another.

Show question

Question

What is insertion?


Show answer

Answer

The process of adding an extra sound between two others.

Show question

Question

What is deletion?


Show answer

Answer

The process of not pronouncing a sound present in a word or phrase, to make it easier to say. 

Show question

Question

Which of these changes is an example of dissimilation?


Show answer

Answer

 [ˈʧɪmni]    [ˈʧɪmli]

Chimney


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