What Are Phonological Words?

Learn More With This Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In spoken language, a phonological word is a prosodic unit that can be preceded and followed by a pause. Also known as a prosodic word, a pword, or a mot.

"The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology," defines a phonological word as "the domain within which certain phonological or prosodic rules apply, for example, rules of syllabification or stress placement. Phonological words may be smaller or larger than grammatical or orthographic words."

The term phonological word was introduced by linguist Robert M.W. Dixon in 1977 and later adopted by other writers. According to Dixon, "It is quite common for 'grammatical word' (set up on grammatical criteria) and 'phonological word' (justified phonologically) to coincide."

Examples and Observations

From the book, "What Is Morphology?: "A phonological word can be defined as a string of sounds that behaves as a unit for certain kinds of phonological processes, especially stress or accent. For the most part, we don't have to distinguish phonological words from other kinds of words. It makes no difference for the words morphology, calendar, Mississippi, or hot dog whether we think of them as phonological words or morphological words. Sometimes we do need to separate the two notions. In English, every phonological word has a main stress. Elements that are written as separate words but do not have their own stress are therefore not phonological words in English.

Consider...the sentence The hot dogs ran for the lake. Think now in terms of word stress. The sentence has seven words, but only four-word stresses, there being no stress on the or for. In fact, the English written word the receives stress only under unusual circumstances, in exchanges like the following:

A: I saw Jennifer Lopez on Fifth Avenue last night.
B: Not the Jennifer Lopez?

Prepositions like for sometimes have stress, but as often as not are also included in the stress domain of the following word. We, therefore, say that the string for the lake, which we write as three separate words, is a single phonological word."

Phonological Words and Syllabification

According to Willem J.M. Levelt and Peter Indefrey in the book, "Image, Language, Brain," "Phonological words are the domains of syllabification, and these often do not coincide with lexical words. For instance, in uttering the sentence they hate us, hate and us will blend into a single phonological word: a speaker will cliticize us to hate, which leads to the syllabification ha-tus. Here the last syllable tus straddles the lexical boundary between verb and pronoun."

Pauses and Infixes

In the book, "Word: A Cross-Linguistic Typology," R.M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenuald say that "Pausing appears in most cases (although perhaps not in all) to be related not to the grammatical word but to the phonological word. In English, for instance, there are just a few examples of two grammatical words making up one phonological word, e.g. don't, won't, he'll.

One would not pause between the grammatical words do- and n't in the middle of the phonological word don't (one could of course pause between the do and not of do not, since these are distinct phonological words).

"The places where expletives may be inserted, as a matter of emphasis, are closely related to (but not necessarily identical to) the places where a speaker may pause. Expletives are normally positioned at word boundaries (at positions which are the boundary for grammatical word and also for phonological word). But there are exceptions—for instance the sergeant-major's protest that I won't have no more insu bloody bordination from you lot or such things as Cinda bloody rella...McCarthy (1982)—shows that in English expletives may only be positioned immediately before a stressed syllable.

What was one unit now becomes two phonological words (and the expletive is a further word). Each of these new phonological words is stressed on its first syllable; this is in keeping with the fact that most phonological words in English are stressed on the first syllable."

The Interaction Between Phonology and Morphology

"[T]he phonological word represents the interaction between phonology and morphology in that a phonological word either corresponds to a morphological word or is constructed on the basis of information on the internal structure of morphological words. By 'morphological word' is meant a (possible compound) stem plus all affixes associated with it," says Marit Julien in "Syntactic Heads and Word Formation." 

Sources

Aronoff, Mark and Kirsten Fudeman. What is Morphology? 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Bauer, Laurie, Rochelle Lieber, and Ingo Plag. The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Dixon, Robert M.W. A Grammar of Yidin. Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Dixon, Robert M.W. and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald. "Words: A Typological Framework." Word: A Cross-Linguistic Typology. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Julien, Marit. Syntactic Heads and Word Formation. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Levelt, Willem J.M. and Peter Indefrey. "The Speaking Mind/Brain: Where Do Spoken Words Come From." Image, Language, Brain: Papers From the First Project Symposium." Edited by Alec P. Marantz, Yasushi Miyashita, et al., The MIT Press, 2000.