Definition of the Day: Phonology

(In this series, we will look at linguistic terms that are important for studying dialects and accents)

Merriam-Webster defines phonology as the following:

the science of speech sounds including especially the history and theory of sound changes in a language or in two or more related languages

Phonology, then, is the study of how language sounds. It deals with how vowels and consonants create meaning in language.

When studying dialects, as opposed to languages, phonology is of supreme importance. After all, there is not much difference between the words spoken by somebody from Philadelphia versus somebody from Boston. But the way they pronounce these words is a different matter entirely.

The tricky thing about phonology is that is is often confused with “phonetics,” an interrelated but different discipline. Because many people struggle with this distinction, I’m going to explain the difference here.

Phonology looks at how the sounds of language are related to each other, and how they convey information. Let’s look at some examples.

We know the words “deep” and “dip” are different because they have different vowel sounds. The same is true with “cat” and “cot,” “pack” and “puck,” etc. In these instances, phonology is concerned with identifying these different vowel sounds, and how they inform the meaning of words.

The interesting part of phonology is when you are comparing different dialects and languages. For instance, in General American English, the words “cat” and “bath” are pronounced with the same vowel sound. In Standard British English, these two words are pronounced with different vowel sounds. That shows a different system of phonology for the two accents.

So what, then, is phonetics. It would be accurate to say that phonetics is more interested in the specific details of human language. It looks at the exact muscles that are used in the mouth, the exact position of the tongue when making different sounds, and how pronunciation varies within a single speaker.

To illustrate the difference between these two terms, imagine that human language is a building. (Bear with me.) Somebody studying phonology would look at the fundamental structure of the building, its engineering, its shape, its square footage, etc. Somebody studying phonetics, on the other hand, would study the actual materials used to make the building: the particular type of steel, whether it’s brick or wood, the glass in the windows. Phonetics studies the raw materials of language; phonology studies how these raw materials are used.

These two fields of study are so dependent on each other that it can be very hard to separate the two. Phonology doesn’t make sense without knowing some phonetics, and vice versa. Both are vital to understand how language works.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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