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


Phonetics and phonology are two essential parts of linguistic competence. While both are related to the production and perception processes 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 recorded in human languages. Phonology, on the other hand, is focused on how these sounds are organized in 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 at introducing the reader to both 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 and 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: The Role of Phonetics and Phonology in Linguistics

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, but what does “language” mean? In English, this word may have at least two different meanings: a) the uniquely human capacity, to produce and comprehend utterances, and b) a specific spoken variety in a community, such as English, German, Italian, Swahili, Japanese, etc. This convergence of two distinct meanings into the same lexical item may generate some confusion. Some languages, such as French or Italian, lexicalize (i.e., linguistically refer to) the two meanings in distinct ways so that French langue and Italian lingua refer only to meaning b), while French langage and Italian linguaggio refer to meaning a). Despite the differences between a) and b), the meanings are strictly related since specific languages are the different surface forms of the same, unique, Faculty of Language. Therefore, linguistics is concerned with both meanings of the word “language”. A linguist may study the Faculty of Language, its characteristics, and the features of specific languages.

As with every other scientific discipline, linguistics requires its object of study to be explicitly defined. Is there a way to define a language to capture both a) and b)? Such a definition has been, throughout the history of linguistics, quite controversial (Chomsky 2016). In this context, a definition that is general enough not to be the object of theoretical debate is preferable. Then, language is defined as the capacity of humans to associate sounds and meanings through a series of mental operations, verbally externalized through the vocal apparatus. It is not clear whether language's main function is communication or rather the externalization of thought, but both these functions are evident to every speaker. On one hand, languages are used as a means of communication, i.e., to ask questions, exchange information, and talk about the world or reality. On the other, much of language use is internal, and it strongly relates to the capacity of thinking. Not 100% of thought is verbal (thought is also conceived through images), but a significant part of it consists of unexpressed language (Moro 2015, p. 305). Linguistic expression is a complex subject since it may be analyzed at different levels: phonology, phonetics, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. This 101 series focuses on phonetics and phonology, the two main components related to the physical properties of sounds and how they contribute to creating systems in languages.

Remarks on Evolutionary and Structural Aspects of the Vocal Apparatus

Language is a phenomenon that characterizes, in a unique way, humans. It is a refined cognitive capacity that relies on neurobiological circuits, as shown by experimental works on the nature of the brain structure (Moro 2015); for this reason, the Language Faculty is strongly associated with a series of mental operations. The externalization of these operations exploits several organs and systems. It can be said that language is a parasite system. Indeed, in its physical realization, it makes use of organs and systems designed for other functions; consider the lungs on the one side and the vocal tract in general on the other, the first mainly associated with breathing, while the second with mastication. Other species related to humans, such as chimpanzees, do not use a language in the strict sense. They may have a repertory of auditory signals, but these do not share any significant properties with human languages. Putting aside the cognitive differences between human and non-human primates, the two strongly differ in terms of anatomic structure related to sound production, this fact makes languages impossible to be produced by non-human primates. Figure 1 shows the relevant anatomic differences between a baboon and a human.

Vocal tract changes in hominid evolution
Figure 1. The vocal tract of a baboon has the same components – including the larynx, circled in green – as that of a person, but with different proportions (Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology, Aix-Marseille University & University Grenoble-Alpes).

In humans, the larynx is located lower, in correspondence with the base of the tongue. The human tongue is different with respect to that of primates: it is larger and rounder, its base is deeper in the throat, and it has a greater range of movement. Breathing happens both through the nose and the mouth (Simone 2013).

Phonetics and the Classification of Sounds

Phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds in languages. It is not focused on all of the sounds produced by humans (sneezing, coughs, etc.), but only on those with linguistic relevance. It is divided into three main sub-fields:

  • Articulatory Phonetics focuses on the way that linguistic sounds are produced.

  • Acoustic Phonetics focuses on the way that these sounds propagate through the air.

  • Perceptual Phonetics focuses on the way that sounds are perceived by the auditory system.

This series is mainly focused on the articulatory aspects of linguistic sounds. All languages have a repertoire of vowels and consonants. Both these groups of sounds have an internal complexity that articulatory phonetics aims at describing in the most adequate way.

First, what is the main difference between vowels and consonants? From the articulatory point of view, both vowels and consonants are produced through the emission of air from the lungs. While in articulating consonants, the air is obstructed to a variable degree by anatomic parts (mouth, teeth, etc.), vowels do not exhibit any obstruction: air flows freely and the variability of vowels is influenced by other factors that will be addressed below.

Vowels are classified according to the following criteria:

  • High/low – it refers to the height of the tongue with respect to the palatum; therefore, vowels may be high, when the distance between the palatum and the tongue is maximum; low, when the tongue is as near as possible to the palatum; and mid, when the tongue is in an intermediate position;

  • Front/back – it refers to the longitudinal position of the tongue in the vocal tract; there are back, front, and central vowels;

  • Round/not round – it refers to whether lips can be flat (not rounded) or if they are rounded.

Consonants are classified according to the following criteria:

  • The way of articulation – it is related to the kind of obstruction used to constrict the air in the vocal tract; this is the classification: occlusive (total obstruction: [p], [t], [k], …); fricative or spirant (partial obstruction: [f], [v], …); vibrant (the vibration of a mobile articulator like the uvula or if the tongue is involved like in French's r); lateral (the constriction is such that air flows laterally in the vocal tract: l); nasal (the obstruction is such that air flows in the nasal cavities: [n], [m]).

  • The place of articulation – it is related to the place in the vocal tract where the obstruction is present; these are the possible places of obstruction: labial (lips are involved: [p], [b], …), labio-dental (lips and teeth together: [f], [v], …), dental (teeth: [t], [d], …), palatal (palatum: [k], [g] …), uvular (uvula), and gutturals (the lower part of the vocal tract)

  • Voice(less)ness – it is related to the presence of vibration of the vocal cords during the articulation; the voiceless consonants lack this vibration ([b]), while voiced ones have it ([p]).

1879 comic strip about the difficulty of pronouncing English dental fricatives ('TH' sounds) for native speakers of other languages
Figure 2. An 1879 comic strip about the difficulty of pronouncing English dental fricatives ('th' sounds) for a native German Speaker (Frost).

There is a third category of linguistic sounds referred to as approximants. They are characterized by an intermediate status between a vowel and a consonant: there is only a very partial and slight constriction of the vocal tract; this is why they may be referred to also as semi-vowels or semi-consonants.

How are some of these properties described? The everyday experience of using symbols to represent our native (or non-native) language would suggest that an alphabet would be useful for such a description. But alphabets in the common sense do not seem optimal due to the following reasons: i) there is plenty of them and ii) they are not descriptively adequate. Regarding the first point, why should the Latin alphabet be chosen over the Greek one? There are no external reasons for such a preference: all alphabets are strictly dependent on the language for which they have been introduced and they are equally imperfect for a scientific description of sounds. With regards to the second point, contemplate specific languages: English is an extremely opaque language with regard to writing. Consider the following words: keys, stops, rice, rise, and thing; it is sufficient to pronounce them to notice that the writing doesn't match with spelling in a coherent way: the s in keys is different from the s in stops, but both are written in the same way. In addition, the s in stops sounds like c in rice, while the s in keys sounds like s in rise. Not only this, but in rice and rise the i sounds different from the i in thing. This might be confusing. Although high orthographic opacity is a problem that characterizes languages like English and not other ones, more transparent languages like Italian show the same problems: amico vs. amici, where c is pronounced as in cook in the first case, but as in chair in the latter.

babelbar logo
Figure 3. Humans from different regions of the Planet have developed distinct writing systems (Hill).

To avoid the ambiguous and unstable nature of historical writing systems, linguists have introduced an alphabet specifically used for phonetic transcriptions, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). IPA has been conceived so that each sound corresponds to a symbol, with no exceptions or ambiguities. In the cases mentioned above, it has [z] for the sound in keys and [s] for the sound in stops. IPA will be explained in greater detail in the second chapter of this series

How Phonetics Differs from Phonology

As stated, phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of linguistic sounds. The main topic of research in phonology is the way that these sounds form an inventory for each language. Consider, for instance, the following pairs: bank vs. tank, and mug vs. pug.

While a phonetic analysis offers a description of the sounds involved in the production of these sequences, a phonological analysis deals with the function of these sounds in a given language (Hyman 1975). In this case, specific phonemes may be able to distinguish pairs of words: in the first case [b] vs. [t], in the second [t] vs. [p]. Once enough data of this kind has been collected, the phonologist concludes that these sounds are distinctive in the language in question: they may productively alter the meaning of a word. Phonology is not limited to spotting the distinctive nature of phonemes but it also analyses the ways that grammar exploits such phonemes. Consider again the pair of keys and stops.

A phonological analysis must account for the fact that in English the plural suffix -s may be executed in two different phonetic ways and, possibly, offer an explanation for such a phenomenon. In this case, it seems highly dependant on the phonetic nature of the preceding sound: a voiced phoneme forces -s to be produced as voiced; a voiceless phoneme forces -s to be produced as voiceless. Phonological analyses aim to describe these kinds of phenomena in a general way, to describe all the possible phonological variations in the language taken into consideration.


The first chapter of this 101 series has explained that phonetics and phonology are both concerned with the physical externalization of language, although they focus on this topic in different ways and with different perspectives. This article described the fundamental ideas behind this discipline, while the next ones will address specific aspects and how they have been approached by phoneticians or phonologists. While a formal and rigorous way to classify linguistic sounds has been mentioned, it has not been analysed in detail. The next articles will explain the principles behind the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and why it has been so important in the development of both phonetics and phonology. Their relationship with general theories on language capacity will be addressed, e.g. what is the role of sound production and perception in grammar? How do they relate to the other components of language like syntax and semantics?

Bibliographical References

Chomsky, N. (2016). What kind of creatures are we? Columbia University Press.

Hyman, L. M. (1975). Phonology: theory and analysis. Harcourt College Pub.

Moro, A. (2015). I confini di Babele. Il cervello e il mistero delle lingue impossibili. Il Mulino.

Simone, R. (2020). Il software del linguaggio, Raffaello Cortina Editore.

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Federico Piersigilli

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