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Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology and its Relation with Language Theory


Phonetics and phonology are two essential parts of the linguistic competence. While both are related with the processes of production and perception of language sounds, they differ in their approach and goals. Phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds, i.e., articulatory, acoustic, and perceptual, and aims at a scientific description and classification of all sounds attested in human languages. Phonology, on the other hand, is more focused on how these sounds are organized in the single languages, i.e., how they constitute their phonological inventory through distinctive oppositions, and how they relate to morpho-syntax and semantics. This course aims to introduce the reader to both of the disciplines, focusing on the following aspects: a) the basic concepts of phonetics and phonology, their interrelation, and differences; b) the use of IPA to write phonetic and phonological transcriptions; c) the major issues and debates in modern phonological theory.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

  1. Phonetics & Phonology 101: The Role of Phonetics and Phonology in Linguistics

  2. Phonetics & Phonology 101: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

  3. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology and its Relation with Language Theory

  4. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Generative Phonology and The Sound Pattern of English

  5. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonological Opacity, a Debate in Modern Phonology

  6. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology in Language Acquisition

Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology and its Relation with Language Theory

This chapter of the 101 series is concerned with phonology, the subfield of linguistics which deals with systems of sounds in language. Differently from phonetics, phonology is not interested much in the physical nature of these sounds, but more in their capacity to interact each other in a grammar. This capacity is essential to describe phonological systems. Consider, for example, the alternation of /p/ and /b/ in the pair parbar. Except that for those sounds, the pair is composed of identical sequences. The distinction between /p/ and /b/ is then phonemic, not just phonetic. They differ in their phonetic features and even in their distinctive power in a language such as English. Not all distinctions are of this kind. Take the aspiration of plosive in the same language, i.e., the tendency of English speakers to pronounce initial plosive followed by a vowel in an aspirated fashion like in phark and as a “normal” p otherwise like in sport. The distinction between [ph] and [p] is not crucial. Indeed, we can imagine that foreign speakers of English that lack aspirated consonants in their native inventory (like Italian, Spanish, etc.) will tend to pronounce [p] in both cases. But this would not affect the meaning of the words, and their interpretability by native speakers of English. In technical terms, the opposition [ph] – [p] is not distinctive but it is a case of allophony, i.e., sound alternation predictable from the context. So, one of the goals of phonology is to describe the phonological inventory of a given language adequately. As it has been noticed that units of sound are not rigid entities but may undergo transformational processes like plosive aspiration described above. To generalize over these processes, i.e., to compile rules which describe these phenomena, is another goal of phonology.

How does phonology achieve these goals? To describe the phonological inventory of a given language, it is necessary to collect a sufficient amount of linguistic data to determine which sounds are distinctive and which are not. The phonemes of English are given in Figure 1 (consonants) and Figure 2 (vowels).

English Consonants
Figure 1. English consonants (Jonathansheehy1, 2019).

The second goal of phonology is achieved through the notion of phonological rules, i.e., a formalization of how phonemes are converted into phones. There are four kinds of phonological rules: a) feature changing, b) segments insertion, c) segments’ order changing, d) segments deletion. Feature changing consists in the contextual modification of a phoneme. For example, in Italian the phoneme /k/ may be realized as [tʃ] when precedes a vowel, like in ami[k]o ‘friend (singular)’ à ami[tʃ]I ‘friend (plural). Segments insertion consists in the introduction of a unit of sound in an empty position, e.g. dog-Ø à dog-s. Segments’ order changing consist in the movement of a sound unit in a different position with respect to the underlying phonological form; there are no rules of this kind in English (nor in Italian), but they characterise the pathological speech of conditions like aphasia (e.g., cimena instead of cinema). Segments deletion consists of the eliminations of units, like in the informal pronunciation of English words such as potato [ˈpteɪtou], terrific [ˈtrɪfɪk], police [ˈpliːs]. All these rules are describable in formal terms, like one would do for a law of physics. Let us focus on the plural suffix -s. The way this suffix is phonetically realized in this language varies according to the surrounding context. More precisely, the phoneme /-s/ is realized as [s] when preceded by voiceless consonants, as [z] when preceded by voiced consonants or vowels, and as [ɪz] when preceded by sibilants, as shown in the following examples:






How is this variability captured by a single rule? One way could be the following:

plural suffixation: the plural suffix /-splural/ surfaces as

i) [s] if preceded by a voiceless segment;

ii) [z] if preceded by a voiced segment;

iii) [ɪz] if preceded by sibilants.

This formalization seems descriptively adequate, since it describes the way /-splural/ surfaces according to the context in which appears. Nevertheless, it presents two problems: a) it is not economic; there seems to be too many distinctions, without considering that i), ii), and iii) could be merged in a single, more general, criterion and b) it lacks an explanation of why [s], [z], [ɪz] alternate. Let us consider this second aspect. The most senseful explanation is that /-splural/ is somewhat sensitive to the ‘sonority level’ of its surroundings. It may be noticed, indeed, that it surfaces as voiceless when it is found in a voiceless context, and as a voiced when it is found in a voiced context, while it surfaces as a mid-vowel + a voiced sibilant when a sibilant precedes. The last case is due to a constraint of English which ban sequences of double sibilants [ss] or [zz]. The new formalization would be the following kind:

Plural suffixation: the plural suffix /-splural/ surfaces according to the sonority feature of the preceding segment.

As it may be noticed, this new formalization does not capture case iii), but it does not need to. Case iii) is forced in the language by the application of the constraint described above and formalized as follows:

*Geminate sibilants: sequences of geminate sibilants are prohibited.

Where the presence of the asterisk indicates the sequence is ungrammatical like in *loss. As it will be elucidated in the next chapter, there is a more elegant way to formalize rules like plural suffixation, not in terms of phonemes but in terms of “features”. The meaning of this terminology will be clarified below.

English vowels IPA
Figure 2. English vowels (Zhen Lin).

At a higher level of phonological analysis, there is another unit relevant to phonology, namely the syllable. A phonetic definition of syllable is that of a prosodic unit composed from one or more phones which focus around an intensity peak (Albano Leoni & Maturi 1998). A more phonology-oriented definition considers the syllable as a prosodic unit which correspond to an organization of sounds (Graffi & Scalise 2002, p. 103). The nucleus forms the core of a syllable. The nature of nucleus may vary depending on the language. In languages like Italian the nucleus must be a vowel. In (American) English it may be a sonorant consonant (i.e., a consonant which may carry the accent of a word), like in [gɑːdn̩]. The nucleus may be preceded by an onset and followed by a coda. The syllable CV (consonant + vowel) seems the most spread syllable type across the languages. A syllable is open if ends in a vowel and closed if ends in a consonant (Atkinson,1999).

So far, this article has focused on what is called segmental phonology, that is the study of segments’ properties. But phonology includes also nonsegmental elements, like length, accent, tone, and intonation. Length is related to the temporal duration of sound production. Not all sounds are of the same length. Normally, high vowels are shorter than low ones, voiced fricatives are longer than voiceless plosive, and so forth. Accent is a property which characterizes syllables, not phonemes. The syllable which carries the primary accent of a word is called tonic, and it is realized with more intensity. The position of the accent may be distinctive, in languages like Italian or English. Consider the following examples: [kɑˈntræst] vs. [kɑˈntræst], [ɪmˈpɔːt] vs. [ˈɪmpɔːt]. Intonation is the perceptive effect produced by oscillation of sounds. Such oscillation is useful to distinguish different kind of sentences. In languages like Italian, which have the same syntactic order for both declarative and interrogative clauses, only the intonational analysis permit the speakers to distinguish among the two (Sta andando al cinema ‘He/She is going to the cinema’ vs. Sta andando al cinema? ‘Is he/she going to the cinema?’). Tone is not phonologically relevant in the languages we have consider so far like English and Italian, but it is in languages Mandarin Chinese. In this language, the same sequence of sounds may acquire different meaning according to tonal differences. Consider the word ma, which has the following meanings: ‘mother’ (high and constant tone), ‘flax’ (ascending high), ‘horse’ (discending low), ‘to insult’ (descending high) (Graffi & Scalise, 2002, Simone, 2013).

Phonology in Linguistic Theory

Phonology is that subfield of linguistics concerned with functional aspects of sounds, but it may be also descripted as a part of linguistic competence. This competence let the speakers use and perceive sounds in their own language (and possibly in other languages too). The phonological competence then consists of a system of sounds (a phonological inventory) and a set of rules and constraints. But how are these elements included in the cognitive systems? Are phonemes psychological units? According to some phonologists, they are not, simply because phonemes are not considered the atomic elements of phonology. This is a radically different idea from that of Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890 - 1938), widely considered the father of modern phonology (Hyman 1975, Figure 3). Indeed, each phoneme is further decomposable in features, acoustic or articulatory. This is the way they are characterized in phonetics. Phonological features do not exactly match with phonetic ones, because phonological alternations are not always phonetically motivated. The idea that phonological features are partly motivated by their articulatory nature was developed by Chomsky & Halle (1968), which will be the focus of the next chapter. What can be said here is that according to this kind of orientations, there are no such thing likes phonemes, but rather articulatory instructions in terms of features which let the speakers produce the relevant sounds according to rules and undergoing constraints which are language specific. The role of phonology, then, is to externalize the result of previous operations, which are syntactic and semantic. Indeed, linguistic performance seems to indicate that sentences are not just produced word-by-word. Rather, when a speaker produces a sentence, the sentence already has its own structure, in terms of grammatical relations and dependencies. The sentence contains elements such as the subject, the object, prepositions, and so on. All these elements are related through nonvisible grammatical relations. In addition, sentences have a meaning. Meaning belongs both to the entire sentence and to single elements which compound it. Consider a sentence like John eats an apple. An English speaker is able to capture both the overall meaning of this sentence and the meaning of single words such as John, eats, an, apple. Phonological competence, if intended as way of externalized structures, can be seen as the more external level in the linguistic competence, or, to say it differently, the level which links the structures of the mind/brain with the perceptual-articulatory system (Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2002). Phonology as a discipline, then, is concerned with the properties of such a competence, both in its language specific terms (phonological inventories, rules, constraints) and in a universal perspective. Since the phonological competence has intrinsic limitations, a phonological study in a universalist perspective should seek for these limitations and seek for the common properties of phonological systems independently from the language taken in consideration.

Figure 3. Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy (image from Trubetzkoy /Poljakov"Russia-Europe-Eurasia", Vienna 2005).


This article has dealt with some of the fundamental aspects of phonology, the subfield of linguistics concerned with the organization of sound units and the processes they undergo in different languages. Although the notion of phonological rule has been introduced, the next chapter will deal with the way this concept has been formalized and developed by generative linguistics and in particular by Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle in The Sound Pattern of English.

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Federico Piersigilli

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