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What is Phonology?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Phonology is the study of sounds and speech patterns in language. The root "phone" in phonology relates to sounds and originates from the Greek word phonema which means sound. Phonology seeks to discern the sounds made in all human languages. The identification of universal and non-universal qualities of sounds is a crucial component in phonology as all languages use syllables and forms of vowels and consonants.

Syllables are involved in the timing of spoken language since speaking each word takes a portion of time. Syllables are units of measurement in language. Vowels allow air to escape from the mouth and nose unblocked, while consonants create more covering of the vocal tract by the tongue. The heard friction that is a consonant is made from the air that cannot escape as the mouth utters the consonant.

Phonemes are units of sound in a language that convey meaning. For example, changing a syllable in a word will change its meaning, such as changing the "a" in "mad" to an "o" to produce "mod". A phoneme can also achieve no meaning by creating non-existent words such as by changing the "m" in "mad" or "mod" to a "j" to produce "jad" or "jod". Phonemes differ from morphemes and graphemes. A morpheme refers to main grammar units, while a grapheme is the main unit of written language.

Ensuring that the proper pronunciation is used in a language is a practical application of phonology. For example, phonology uses symbols to differentiate the sounds of a particular vowel. The vowels are classified into "front", "central", and "back" depending on the positioning of the jaw and tongue when the vowel sounds are made. Phonology also notes lip position such as if the lips are spread out or rounded as well as if the vowel sound is long or short.

The symbol for the vowel sound in words such as "chilly" or "tin" in phonology is /i/ and refers to a front, short vowel spoken with a tongue in high position and spread lips. Contrastingly, the symbol for the vowel sound in words such as "moon" or "blue" in phonology is /u:/ and refers to a back, long vowel spoken with a tongue in high position still, but with rounded lips.

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Discussion Comments
By anon184978 — On Jun 10, 2011

can you tell me in the simplest way, how morphology, phonology, semantics and syntax are related?

By anon162755 — On Mar 24, 2011

Elementary teachers in rural area must undergo courses in phonology to trained pupils on how to speak the words correctly.

By fitness234 — On Oct 07, 2010

@FrogFriend, you are correct in your suggestion that parents speak in a proper manner to their children to ensure that their ears are hearing the correct way to speak. The unfortunate side to this concept is that some children with hearing issues will develop speech problems because they are incapable of hearing the correct phonology being spoken.

This problem can often be corrected with medical attention but sometimes the solutions and cures will involve surgery or tubes being implanted into the ears of the child. If there is serious hearing impairment then it is possible that specialized hearing devices will be used to help the patient interpret sounds correctly.

By FrogFriend — On Oct 07, 2010

One way that parents can help their children avoid these embarrassing and sometimes life changing speech problems is to not use baby-talk as the child grows older.

By having parents speak and pronounce words in the correct way we are able to avoid many issues that can face children with speech impediments.

By Ubiquitous — On Oct 07, 2010

@ronburg44, I think that if you were to take a look into most public education systems and especially on the elementary level of schooling, there is almost always a speech expert on site that has studied phonology phonetics.

These trained specialists to exactly what you suggest and help these sometimes very daunting speech pattern problems be overcome by the afflicted individual.

By ronburg44 — On Oct 07, 2010

I think the study of phonology is a crucial part of our education system. When we have experts in speech sounds and patterns then we can do a better job at helping students that have speech impediments and other related defects.

The ability to study vowel phonology means that one day the knowledge can be used to ensure that a child leads both a more educated and socially acceptable life.

Often in schools, students with speech impediments are teased or bullied because of the way that the pronounce sounds. I urge that we put more money into the education funding system as to allow the further study of phonetics and phonology.

By anon26739 — On Feb 18, 2009

What about the phonology of natural signed languages?

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