The Relationship between Phonology and Phonetics

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Phonetics is the study of speech sounds that humans can produce and its units are called phones. The phones are representations of speech sounds that are present in a given language and phonetics attempts to describe their acoustic properties as well as how they are physically articulated. In distinction, phonology is the study of how speech sounds distinguish meaning. The smallest unit of meaning that can be derived from a sound in speech is referred to as a phoneme. A phoneme might be the ‘i’ in pig, but it could also be the ‘oo’ in would or look.

Phonology stipulates the way in which phonemes can be combined to produce larger sequences of meaning, like words, prefixes or suffixes (Hall, 35). To describe the relationship between phones and phonemes we will consider the letter ‘r.’ For an English speaker, ‘r’ has a distinct meaning and also helps lend meaning to other letters when forming words, so it can be described as a phoneme. However, the letter ‘r’ can also have various pronunciations depending on what word it is being used in. The differences in the pronunciations of ‘r’ results in separate sets of phones for the same phoneme. These sets are more accurately called allophones, because they function as “alternant realizations of the same phoneme.” Phonetics informs us that the reason certain phones of the letter ‘r’ differ is because of the physical way they are produced. For instance, the r-sound in trope differs from the r-sound in wrap because the r-phone in trope is voiceless (Plag, 31). Phonetics is concerned with the acoustics, neurological aspects, and human vocal and auditory tracts involved in how speech is physically created and received.

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Because the same phoneme can be pronounced differently even within one language, there can be multiple phones for a single phoneme. Phonology depends on phonetic data, but focuses on how patterns in speech and non-verbal communication create meaning, and how we interpret those patterns. Another way of describing the difference would be to say that phonology describes how languages make use of sounds to distinguish words from each other while phonetics deals not with reference to the word signs but how they are actually articulated through speech (Delahunty and Garvey, 89).

  • “Phonetics and Phonology.” In The English Language: From Sound to Sense, by James J. Garvey Gerald P. Delahunty, 81-119. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press., 2010. http://wac.colostate.edu
  • Hall, Christopher J. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • Plag, Ingo. Introduction to English Linguistics. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.

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