What is phonology?

 

1. Definitions

Phonology is that branch of linguistics which studies the sound system of languages. The sound system involves

 

We shall focus more on the former because there is very little information about historical prosody!

 

(It might also be relevant to say here that we will distinguish phonetics from phonology. The former concentrates on the actual sound-making and could be thought of as being more akin to physics; the latter concentrates on how sounds are organised in individual languages. In order to do phonology, therefore, you will necessarily need to know at least some of the phonetics.)

 

2. The IPA
Phonologists and phoneticians generally have to use special symbols – usually the IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet.

 

This module does not attempt to teach you the IPA, although we will introduce you to the symbols used for English.

 

One word of warning: we said that English spelling was phonetic, more or less; we also said that English spelling sometimes represents morphemes as well. We need to careful, therefore, and not assume that every letter represents a phoneme. For example, people often talk about ‘dropping the g’ in words like talking and running (often written as talkin and runnin), whereas <ng> in talking represents one sound /N/, and <n’> in talkin represents another sound /n/; ‘dropping’ suggests that one sound has been left out.

 

Another convention that might be useful to mention here is that orthographic symbols (including spelling) are indicated by the use of angle brackets, as in <ch>; phonetic symbols are indicated by the use of square brackets, as in [k]; and phonemes are indicated by the use of oblique strokes, as in /k/.

 

There are a number of websites that you can go to for further information.

·         You can go to a web page maintained by Michael Quinion for a quick introduction: http://www.quinion.com/words/pronguide.htm 

·         You can also go to Peter Ladefoged’s website that also contains sound files for you to listen to how the phonetic symbols are pronounced: http://hctv.humnet.ucla.edu/departments/linguistics/VowelsandConsonants/vowels/contents.html (Peter Ladefoged is a British-born linguist in the University of California, Los Angeles.)

 

(It might also be useful to add that a number of American linguists use a modified version of the IPA, so be forewarned if you have consulted or are consulting American texts.)

 

First of all, the letters b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z are given their conventional values as in normal English spelling.

 

Here are some other symbols for consonants with examples of the sounds (italicised) from English words. The alternative symbols have been included for information and will not be used in this module.

 

IPA Symbol

Word

Alternative Symbols

 

IPA

Symbol

Word

Alternative Symbols

g

get

 

 

x

loch (Scottish)

 

Z

pleasure

Description: http://www.dartmouth.edu/artsci/engl/engl18/img/graphemes/consonants/zh.gif (American)

 

dZ

jam

Description: http://www.dartmouth.edu/artsci/engl/engl18/img/graphemes/consonants/dzh.gif (American)

S

ship

Description: http://www.dartmouth.edu/artsci/engl/engl18/img/graphemes/consonants/sh.gif (American)

 

tS

chin

Description: http://www.dartmouth.edu/artsci/engl/engl18/img/graphemes/consonants/ch.gif (American)

N

sing

 

 

?

settle (Cockney)

 

T

thin

 

 

j

yes

y (American)

D

this

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some vowel symbols. Vowels are different from consonants (here I am talking about sounds, not spelling) in that there is relatively little obstruction to the air passage. The kind of vowel sound that you produce will therefore depend on how you adjust some of the movable organs that affect the sound produced – especially your tongue position and whether you round  (pucker) or spread your lips.

 

If you took an x-ray picture of your oral cavity whilst saying particular vowel sounds, you will notice that the tongue can be raised more or less (be in a close/high or open/low position), and whether the raising is towards the front (towards the lips) or the back (towards the throat).

 

 

[i] is the sound in tea; the tongue is high (close), and raised in front

[u] is the sound in two; the tongue is high (close), and raised at the back

[A] is the sound in tar; the tongue is low (open), and raised at the back

 

We can summarise the information in a chart. I am aware that the chart is difficult to read, and the examples of English words are also a little problematic given that there are many accents of English today with therefore a range of different possible pronunciations. (So, by ‘Kate’, I mean the beginning of the vowel, because many people glide off to another vowel. By ‘tow’ I mean the pure vowel sound as spoken by the Scots, or the first part of the sound by others before the glide – but again there are accents where this sound is not used. And there are many accents that make a two-way distinction between taught, tot and tar; and indeed some which have the same vowel sound for all three.)

 

 

Description: vowels.JPG

The words given as examples of the sounds are based on southern British pronunciation or RP (see below for a discussion of RP).

 

Pure Vowels

 

Non-pure Vowels

IPA Symbol

Key Word (Wells)

Alternative Symbols

 

IPA

Symbol

Key Word (Wells)

Alternative Symbols

A;

start, palm

 

 

aI

price

AI, VI

&

trap

a

 

OI

choice

 

O;

thought

 

 

eI

face

 

Q

lot

 

 

oU

goat

@U

u;

goose

 

 

aU

mouth

AU

U

foot

 

 

I@

near

 

V

strut

 

 

U@

cure

 

i;

fleece

 

 

aI@

diary

VI@

I

kit

 

 

  aU@

hour

 

E;

square

E@, e@

 

 

 

 

E

dress

e

 

 

 

 

3;

nurse

 

 

 

 

 

@

comma

 

 

 

 

 

 

The keywords are from John Christopher Wells’s Accents of English: An introduction (1982). You can see the list here as well: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/phoneticsymbolsforenglish.htm

 

3. Range of accents

 

We use the term ‘accents’ (as opposed to ‘dialects’) to refer to differences in pronunciations. The standardised English spelling that we have today sometimes suggests that pronunciation should also be ‘standardised’. For example, there is only one standard spelling of butter today, but in the past these were also possible spellings: butere, buttere,  boter, botere, botter, butre, buttur, butture, buttir, buttyr, botyr, boture, bottre and butyr.

(a)    Does everyone pronounce the <r>? If it is pronounced, are there different ways of pronouncing the <r>?

(b)   Almost everyone pronounces the <t>, but it can be done in various ways.

(c)    Everyone pronounces the <u>, but it can be done in various ways.

Description: phonetic symbols: pronunciations of 'butter' in RP, GA, Cockney, West Country, tough-cop New York, Irish/Scots, Singaporean accents

 

Some accents have received more attention than others from phoneticians and phonologists. These are RP and GA.

 

Received Pronunciation (RP)

 

General American (GA)

 

 

B. Splits and mergers

C. The Great Vowel Shift

D. Rhoticity

E. The Intervocalic Ts

 

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