Phonology & Phonetics Humans are the only species in the

Humans are the only species in the animal kingdom that possess the ability to form a complex spoken language and use it to communicate with each other. After thousands of years of development there are hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken around the globe. Phonolgy and phonetics are concepts that describe and analyze the motor process of spoken language, that is, how the human body produces sounds, how it transmits and organizes them, and how these sounds are used to express meaning.

In basic terms phonetics is the study of how speech sounds are made, transmitted, and received; it is the study of all possible speech sounds. (Crystal, 1987) Phonology, on the other hand, is the study of the sound system of language, the rules that govern promunication. (Parker, 1986)

To begin with, phonology is actually a complex topic of study encompassing many different areas of study. The actual word phonology, coming from the Greek language, can be divided into two parts; phone, which means voice or sound, and logos, which means word or speech. Phonology can be considered a subfield of linguistics, which studies the sound system of a specific language or languages. (Wikipedia, 2006) There are two main areas of phonology. One has to do with anatomy and physiology, and the other with socio-linguistics.

The anatomy and physiology of phonology have to do with the organs of speech and how we learn to use them to produce a spoken language that can be used for communicating with others. These organs make up what is called the vocal tract, the passage from the lips and nostrils to the larynx. The vocal tract is a tube that produces sound when air from the lungs is pumped through it. It is made-up of the lips, teeth, tongue, alveolar ridge, palate, velum, uvula, pharynx, epiglottis, esophagus, larynx, and trachea. Once again these specific organs are what set humans apart from other animal species in our unique ability to produce speech.

As phonology is a subfield of linguistics, it accordingly addresses the areas that are studied by socio-linguistics. One major area of study is the phoneme, which in human language is the theoretical representation of a sound. Phonemes are distinctive units of sounds, making up words or syllables. These in turn, make up the phonemic alphabet, developed to reduce the problem of orthography in the English language. The other topics include the concepts of accent, intonation and stress (also known as non- phonemic prosody), as well as topics such as assimilation, elision, epenthesis, vowel harmony, tone, and phonotactics.

Phonetics can be said to be the science of speech. It is the study of the articulatory and acoustic properties of the sounds of human language. The main aim of phonetics is to describe and classify speech sounds. These sounds can be identified with reference to their production in the vocal tract, their acoustic transmission, or their auditory reception. In speech production, phonetics is used to try to explain how the speaker converts the intended linguistic message into the working of the articulatory organs. In acoustic transmission, phonetics tries to explain what the acoustic results of the activity of the articulatory organs are. In auditory reception, phonetics tries to explain how the listener converts the sound waves back into a linguistic message.

When making this analysis, there are generally six main factors that are referred to. The first is the air stream. The second are the vocal folds, producing a voiced sound (when vocal folds vibrate), or a voiceless sound (no vibration), the vocal folds are open. Thirdly there is the soft palate, producing nasal or oral sounds. Fourth is the place of articulation, a point in the vocal tract where the main closure or narrowing is made at the lips, teeth, or hard palate. Fifth is the manner of articulation, referring to the type of constriction or movement that takes place at any place of articulation. And lastly are the lips, whose position is an important feature of the description of certain sounds being rounded, spread, open, or closed.

A comparison can be made between phonetics and phonology to help understand the difference between the two. Phonetics is the basis for phonological analysis, whereas phonology is the basis for further work in morphology, syntax, discourse, and orthography design. Phonetics analyzes the production of all human speech sounds, regardless of language; whereas phonology analyzes the sound patterns of a particular language by determining which phonetic sounds are significant and explaining how these sounds are interpreted by the native speaker.

Phonology and phonetics can be complex topics, but can still be easily applied in the classroom. The teacher can apply them through the following activities: vocabulary work, listening activities, presentations by the teacher of specific rules, controlled practice, speaking, dictionary work and writing activities.


Parker, Frank, Linguistics for Non-Linguists, PRO-ED, Inc., 1986.

Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, 1987

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