Phonology, also called phonemics, is the study of the organization of speech sounds into a linguistic system of contrasting elements called phonemes. Unlike phonetics, phonology must account for native-speaker judgments as to what is contrastive and what is not. There are two broad approaches to this study: ones regards phonology as a level of structural organization of a language; the other, developed more recently, considers phonology a component within the generative grammar of a language.
Any two sounds of a language contrast if they can be found in a minimal pair, such as the [f] and [v] of English fat and vat. Such sounds belong to separate phonemes, usually represented between forward slashes (/f/ and /v/) to distinguish them from their phonetic representations between square brackets. The word phoneme is from the Russian fonema via French phonème as used by Ferdinand de Saussure.
Phonological analysis organizes sounds that do not contrast into phonemes. For example, in standard Spanish [s] and [z] are allophones of a single phoneme /s/; the phoneme is predictably pronounced [z] before voiced consonants (mismo = [mizmo], desde = [dezde]) and [s] elsewhere. In this case the allophones are said to be in complementary distribution. This relationship between [s] and [z] can be captured in a phonological rule:
/s/ [z] /_[consonant +voice]; [s] elsewhere
The rule, expressed in words, reads: The alveolar fricative phoneme is pronounced voiced, preceding a voiced consonant, and voiceless in all other environments. The use of /s/ rather then /z/ to represent the phoneme is determined by the fact that [s] is the principal or default allophone.
Sounds may be allophones of a single phoneme, but not be predictable by a phonological rule; the allophones are then said to be in free variation. For example, in some varieties of Creole English, as spoken in the West Indies, the vowels [i] and [I] (the vowels of standard English sheep and ship) are allophones of one phoneme /i/ in free variation, making sheep and ship unpredictable homophones in those language varieties.
It is important to emphasize that a phoneme, like Spanish /s/, is not a sound; it is a mental “concept” that is pronounced as one of its allophones when it goes through whatever phonological rules apply. The “concept,” however, is semantically empty, meaning that just as bricks can be combined to build any number of kinds of useful structures, phonemes can be combined and recombined to form any number of meaningful constructions (morphemes, words). This is expressed by Charles Hockett’s dual patterning design feature.
In addition to vowels and consonants, sometimes referred to as segments, suprasegmental features such as length, stress, nasalization, tone or pitch, and intonation may also be contrastive. For example, in Latin a contrast exists between short and long vowels resulting in pairs such as /os/ “bone” and /o:s/ “mouth.”
Learning and recording data in previously unwritten languages has been an important component of anthropological fieldwork. To this end, phonology (together with phonetics) has given anthropologists an analytic procedure for, in Kenneth Pike’s words, “reducing languages to writing.” This procedure has provided a model for scientific analysis of human cultural patterns.
- Chomsky, N., & Halle, M. (1968). The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
- Hyman, L. (1975). Phonology: Theory and analysis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Pike, K. (1976). Phonemics: A technique for reducing languages to writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Robins, R. H. (1997). A short history of linguistics (4th). London: Longman.