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Phonetics vs.

Phonology
1. Phonetics vs. phonology
Phonetics deals with the production of speech sounds by humans, often without prior knowledge
of the language being spoken. Phonology is about patterns of sounds, especially different
patterns of sounds in different languages, or within each language, different patterns of sounds in
different positions in words etc.
2. Phonology as grammar of phonetic patterns

The consonant cluster /st/ is OK at the beginning, middle or end of words in English.
At beginnings of words, /str/ is OK in English, but /ftr/ or / tr/ are not (they are
ungrammatical).

/ tr/ is OK in the middle of words, however, e.g. in "ashtray".

/ tr/ is OK at the beginnings of words in German, though, and /ftr/ is OK word-initially in


Russian, but not in English or German.

3. A given sound have a different function or status in the sound patterns of different
languages
For example, the glottal stop [ ] occurs in both English and Arabic BUT ...
In English, at the beginning of a word, [ ] is a just way of beginning vowels, and does not occur
with consonants. In the middle or at the end of a word, [ ] is one possible pronunciation of /t/ in
e.g. "pat" [pa ].
In Arabic, / / is a consonant sound like any other (/k/, /t/ or whatever): [ ktib] "write!", [da i a]
"minute (time)", [ a ] "right".
4. Phonemes and allophones, or sounds and their variants
The vowels in the English words "cool", "whose" and "moon" are all similar but slightly
different. They are three variants or allophones of the /u/ phoneme. The different variants are
dependent on the different contexts in which they occur. Likewise, the consonant phoneme /k/
has different variant pronunciations in different contexts. Compare:
keep

/kip/

cart

/k t/

coot

/kut/

seek

/sik/

The place of articulation is fronter in the mouth


The place of articulation is not so front in the
mouth
The place of articulation is backer, and the lips are
rounded
There is less aspiration than in initial position

[k ]
h
+

[k ]
h

[k ]
hw

[k`]

scoop

/skup/

There is no aspiration after /s/

[k]

These are all examples of variants according to position (contextual variants). There are also
variants between speakers and dialects. For example, "toad" may be pronounced [tUd] in highregister RP, [toUd] or [to d] in the North. All of them are different pronunciations of the same
sequence of phonemes. But these differences can lead to confusion: [toUd] is "toad" in one
dialect, but may be "told" in another.
5. Phonological systems
Phonology is not just (or even mainly) concerned with categories or objects (such as consonants,
vowels, phonemes, allophones, etc.) but is also crucially about relations. For example, the
English stops and fricatives can be grouped into related pairs which differ in voicing and (for the
stops) aspiration:
Voiceless/aspirat
ed
Voiced/unaspirat
ed

h
(unpaire
d)

Patterns lead to expectations: we expect the voiceless fricative [h] to be paired with a voiced [ ],
but we do not find this sound as a distinctive phoneme in English. And in fact /h/ functions
differently from the other voiceless fricatives (it has a different distribution in words etc.) So
even though [h] is phonetically classed as a voiceless fricative, it is phonologically quite different
from /f/, /s/, / / and / /.
Different patterns are found in other languages. In Classical Greek a three-way distinction was
made between stops:
Voiceless/aspirated
Voiced/unaspirated
Voiced (and unaspirated)

p
p
b

t
t
d

k
k

In Hindi-Urdu a four-way pattern is found, at five places of articulation:


Voiceless aspirated
Voiceless unaspirated
Voiced unaspirated
Breathy voiced ("voiced aspirates")

p
p
b
b

t
t
d
d
h

6. Shapes of vowel systems: some common examples:

etc.
etc.

c
c

k
k

Triangular:
(e.g. Arabic)
i

3 vowels

Triangular:
5 vowels
(e.g. Japanese)
u
i
u
e
o
a

Triangular: 6 vowels
(e.g. Tbatulabal)
i
u
e
o

Triangular:
(e.g. Italian)
i
e

7 vowels
u
o
a

Triangular: 6 vowels
(e.g. Bulgarian)
i
e

u
o
a

Rectangular: 6 vowels
(e.g.
Montenegrin)
i
u
e
o
a

How many degrees of vowel height are there in Bulgarian? On the face of things, it appears to be
not very different from Tbatulabal, which has three heights: three high vowels, two mid vowels
and one low vowel. But if we look more closely into Bulgarian phonology, we see that the fact
that schwa is similar in height to /e/ and /o/ is coincidental: the distinction that matters in
Bulgarian is /i/ vs. /e/, /u/ vs. /o/ and / / vs. /a/, i.e. relatively high vs. relatively low. As evidence
for this statement, note that while all six vowels may occur in stressed syllables, only /i/, /e/, / /
and /u/ occur in unstressed syllables.
7. Phonology as interpretation of phonetic patterns: Fang (Bantu: Cameroon, Gabon,
Equatorial Guinea)
Fang
1) etf
2) v bi, v bi
3) ndv ( )
4) kf l
-

5)

kf

6) k l

English
shoulder
hippopotamus
dam
tortoise

Fang
7) t m
8) bik q
9) el n
10) f q

English
branch
back teeth
water tortoise
bag

salt

11) t

neck

rope

12) os n squirrel

Vowels in corpus:

?u expected but not

found
o