Phonology: Definition and Observations

"A primary goal of phonology," say J. Cole and J. Hualde, "is to discover the elements that serve as the building blocks of speech" (The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, 2011).

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Phonology is the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of speech sounds with reference to their distribution and patterning. The adjective for the term is "phonological." A linguist who specializes in phonology is known as a pathologist. The word is pronounced "fah-NOL-ah-gee." The term derives from the Greek, "sound" or "voice."

In "Fundamental Concepts in Phonology," Ken Lodge observes that phonology "is about differences of meaning signaled by sound." As discussed below, the boundaries between the fields of phonology and phonetics are not always sharply defined.

Observations on Phonology

"One way to understand the subject matter of phonology is to contrast it with other fields within linguistics. A very brief explanation is that phonology is the study of sound structures in language, which is different from the study of sentence structures (syntax), word structures (morphology), or how languages change over time (historical linguistics). But this is insufficient. An important feature of the structure of a sentence is how it is pronounced—its sound structure. The pronunciation of a given word is also a fundamental part of the structure of a word. And certainly the principles of pronunciation in a language are subject to change over time. So phonology has a relation to numerous domains of linguistics."

– David Odden, Introducing Phonology, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2013

The Aim of Phonology

"The aim of phonology is to discover the principles that govern the way sounds are organized in languages and to explain the variations that occur. We begin by analyzing an individual language to determine which sound units are used and which patterns they form—the language's sound system. We then compare the properties of different sound systems, and work out hypotheses about the rules underlying the use of sounds in particular groups of languages. Ultimately, phonologists want to make statements that apply to all languages....

"Whereas phonetics is the study of all possible speech sounds, phonology studies the way in which a language's speakers systematically use a selection of these sounds in order to express meaning.

"There is a further way of drawing the distinction. No two speakers have anatomically identical vocal tracts, and thus no one produces sounds in exactly the same way as anyone else....Yet when using our language we are able to discount much of this variation, and focus on only those sounds, or properties of sound, that are important for the communication of meaning. We think of our fellow speakers as using the 'same' sounds, even though acoustically they are not. Phonology is the study of how we find order within the apparent chaos of speech sounds."

– David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook Press, 2005

"When we talk about the 'sound system' of English, we are referring to the number of phonemes which are used in a language and to how they are organized."

– David Crystal, The Cambridge Encylopedia of the English Language, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003

Phoneme Systems

"[P]honology is not only about phonemes and allophones. Phonology also concerns itself with the principles governing the phoneme systems—that is, with what sounds languages 'like' to have, which sets of sounds are most common (and why) and which are rare (and also why). It turns out that there are prototype-based explanations for why the phoneme system of the languages of the world have the sounds that they do, with physiological/acoustic/perceptual explanations for the preference for some sounds over others."

– Geoffrey S. Nathan, Phonology: A Cognitive Grammar Introduction. John Benjamins, 2008

The Phonetics-Phonology Interface

"Phonetics interfaces with phonology in three ways. First, phonetics defines distinctive features. Second, phonetics explains many phonological patterns. These two interfaces constitute what has come to be called the 'substantive grounding' of phonology (Archangeli & Pulleyblank, 1994). Finally, phonetics implements phonological representations.

"The number and depth of these interfaces is so great that one is naturally moved to ask how autonomous phonetics and phonology are from one another and whether one can be largely reduced to the other. The answers to these questions in the current literature could not differ more. At one extreme, Ohala (1990b) argues that there is in fact no interface between phonetics and phonology because the latter can largely if not completely be reduced to the former. At the opposite extreme, Hale & Reiss (2000b) argue for excluding phonetics entirely from phonology because the latter is about computation, while the former is about something else. Between these extremes is a large variety of other answers to these questions...."

– John Kingston, "The Phonetics-Phonology Interface." The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology, ed. by Paul de Lacy. Cambridge University Press, 2007

Phonemics and Phonology

"Phonemics is the study of phonemes in their various aspects, i.e. their establishment, description, occurrence, arrangement, etc. Phonemes fall under two categories, segmental or linear phonemes and suprasegmental or non-linear phonemes....The term 'phonemics,' with the above-mentioned sense attached to it, was widely used in the heyday of post-Bloomfieldian linguistics in America, in particular from the 1930s to the 1950s, and continues to be used by present-day post-Bloomfieldians. Note in this connection that Leonard Bloomsfield (1887-1949) used the term 'phonology,' not 'phonemics,' and talked about primary phonemes and secondary phonemes while using the adjectival form 'phonemic' elsewhere. The term 'phonology,' not 'phonemics,' is generally used by contemporary linguists of other schools."

– Tsutomu Akamatsu, "Phonology." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., edited by Kirsten Malmkjaer. Routledge, 2004


  • Lodge, Ken. Fundamental Concepts in Phonology. Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Phonology: Definition and Observations." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Phonology: Definition and Observations. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Phonology: Definition and Observations." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).