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phonologist n : a specialist in phonology

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  1. A person who specializes in phonology, the functional use of sounds in language.

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Extensive Definition

Phonology (Greek φωνή (phōnē), voice, sound + λόγος (lógos), word, speech, subject of discussion), is a subfield of linguistics which studies the sound system of a specific language or set of languages. Whereas phonetics is about the physical production and perception of the sounds of speech, phonology describes the way sounds function within a given language or across languages.
An important part of phonology is studying which sounds are distinctive units within a language. In English, for example, /p/ and /b/ are distinctive units of sound, (i.e., they are phonemes / the difference is phonemic, or phonematic). This can be seen from minimal pairs such as "pin" and "bin", which mean different things, but differ only in one sound. On the other hand, /p/ is often pronounced differently depending on its position relative to other sounds, yet these different pronunciations are still considered by native speakers to be the same "sound". For example, the /p/ in "pin" is aspirated while the same phoneme in "spin" is not. In some other languages, for example Thai and Quechua, this same difference of aspiration or non-aspiration does differentiate phonemes.
In addition to the minimal meaningful sounds (the phonemes), phonology studies how sounds alternate, such as the /p/ in English described above, and topics such as syllable structure, stress, accent, and intonation.
The principles of phonological theory have also been applied to the analysis of sign languages, even though the phonological units do not consist of sounds. The principles of phonological analysis can be applied independently of modality because they are designed to serve as general analytical tools, not language-specific ones.

Representing phonemes

The writing systems of some languages are based on the phonemic principle of having one letter (or combination of letters) per phoneme and vice-versa. Ideally, speakers can correctly write whatever they can say, and can correctly read anything that is written. (In practice, this ideal is never realized.) However in English, different spellings can be used for the same phoneme (e.g., rude and food have the same vowel sounds), and the same letter (or combination of letters) can represent different phonemes (e.g., the "th" consonant sounds of thin and this are different). In order to avoid this confusion based on orthography, phonologists represent phonemes by writing them between two slashes: " / / " (but without the quotes). On the other hand, the actual sounds are enclosed by square brackets: " [ ] " (again, without quotes). While the letters between slashes may be based on spelling conventions, the letters between square brackets are usually the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or some other phonetic transcription system.

Phoneme inventories

Doing a phoneme inventory

Part of the phonological study of a language involves looking at data (phonetic transcriptions of the speech of native speakers) and trying to deduce what the underlying phonemes are and what the sound inventory of the language is. Even though a language may make distinctions between a small number of phonemes, speakers actually produce many more phonetic sounds. Thus, a phoneme in a particular language can be pronounced in many ways.
Looking for minimal pairs forms part of the research in studying the phoneme inventory of a language. A minimal pair is a pair of words from the same language, that differ by only a single sound, and that are recognized by speakers as being two different words. When there is a minimal pair, the two sounds represent separate phonemes. However, since it is often impossible to detect all phonemes with this method, other approaches are used as well.

Phonemic distinctions or allophones

If two similar sounds do not belong to separate phonemes, they are called allophones of the same underlying phoneme. For instance, voiceless stops () can be aspirated. In English, voiceless stops at the beginning of a stressed syllable (but not after /s/) are aspirated, whereas after /s/ they are not aspirated. This can be seen by putting the fingers right in front of the lips and noticing the difference in breathiness in saying 'pin' versus 'spin'. There is no English word 'pin' that starts with an unaspirated p, therefore in English, aspirated (the means aspirated) and unaspirated [p] are allophones of the same phoneme /p/.
The /t/ sounds in the words 'tub', 'stub', 'but', 'butter', and 'button' are all pronounced differently in American English, yet are all perceived as "the same sound", therefore they constitute another example of allophones of the same phoneme in English.
Another example: in English and many other languages, the liquids and /r/ are two separate phonemes (minimal pair 'life', 'rife'); however, in Korean these two liquids are allophones of the same phoneme, and the general rule is that comes before a vowel, and does not (e.g. Seoul, Korea). A native speaker will tell you that the in Seoul and the in Korean are in fact the same sound. Theoretically, what happens is that a native Korean speaker's brain recognises the underlying phoneme , and, depending on the phonetic context (whether before a vowel or not), expresses it as either or . Another Korean speaker will hear both sounds as the underlying phoneme and think of them as the same sound. This is one reason why most people have a marked accent when they attempt to speak a language that they did not grow up hearing; their brains sort the sounds they hear in terms of the phonemes of their own native language.
There are different methods for determining why allophones should fall categorically under a specified phoneme. Counter-intuitively, the principle of phonetic similarity is not always used. This tends to make the phoneme seem abstracted away from the phonetic realities of speech. It should be remembered that, just because allophones can be grouped under phonemes for the purpose of linguistic analysis, this does not necessarily mean that this is an actual process in the way the human brain processes a language. On the other hand, it could be pointed out that some sort of analytic notion of a language beneath the word level is usual if the language is written alphabetically. So one could also speak of a phonology of reading and writing.

Change of a phoneme inventory over time

The particular sounds which are phonemic in a language can change over time. At one time, and were allophones in English, but these later changed into separate phonemes. This is one of the main factors of historical change of languages as described in historical linguistics.

Other topics in phonology

Phonology also includes topics such as assimilation, elision, epenthesis, vowel harmony, tone, non-phonemic prosody and phonotactics. Prosody includes topics such as stress and intonation.

Development of the field

In ancient India, the Sanskrit grammarian (c. 520460 BC) in his text of Sanskrit phonology, the Shiva Sutras, discusses something like the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. The Shiva Sutras describe a phonemic notational system in the fourteen initial lines of the . The notational system introduces different clusters of phonemes that serve special roles in the morphology of Sanskrit, and are referred to throughout the text. Panini's grammar of Sanskrit had a significant influence on Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern structuralism, who was a professor of Sanskrit.
The Polish scholar Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, (together with his former student Mikołaj Kruszewski) coined the word phoneme in 1876, and his work, though often unacknowledged, is considered to be the starting point of modern phonology. He worked not only on the theory of the phoneme but also on phonetic alternations (i.e., what is now called allophony and morphophonology). His influence on Ferdinand de Saussure was also significant.
Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy's posthumously published work, the Principles of Phonology (1939), is considered the foundation of the Prague School of phonology. Directly influenced by Baudouin de Courtenay, Trubetzkoy is considered the founder of morphophonology, though morphophonology was first recognized by Baudouin de Courtenay. Trubetzkoy split phonology into phonemics and archiphonemics; the former has had more influence than the latter. Another important figure in the Prague School was Roman Jakobson, who was one of the most prominent linguists of the twentieth century.
In 1968 Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle published The Sound Pattern of English (SPE), the basis for Generative Phonology. In this view, phonological representations are sequences of segments made up of distinctive features. These features were an expansion of earlier work by Roman Jakobson, Gunnar Fant, and Morris Halle. The features describe aspects of articulation and perception, are from a universally fixed set, and have the binary values + or -. There are at least two levels of representation: underlying representation and surface phonetic representation. Ordered phonological rules govern how underlying representation is transformed into the actual pronunciation (the so called surface form). An important consequence of the influence SPE had on phonological theory was the downplaying of the syllable and the emphasis on segments. Furthermore, the Generativists folded morphophonology into phonology, which both solved and created problems.
Natural Phonology was a theory based on the publications of its proponent David Stampe in 1969 and (more explicitly) in 1979. In this view, phonology is based on a set of universal phonological processes which interact with one another; which ones are active and which are suppressed are language-specific. Rather than acting on segments, phonological processes act on distinctive features within prosodic groups. Prosodic groups can be as small as a part of a syllable or as large as an entire utterance. Phonological processes are unordered with respect to each other and apply simultaneously (though the output of one process may be the input to another). The second-most prominent Natural Phonologist is Stampe's wife, Patricia Donegan; there are many Natural Phonologists in Europe, though also a few others in the U.S., such as Geoffrey Pullum. The principles of Natural Phonology were extended to morphology by Wolfgang U. Dressler, who founded Natural Morphology.
In 1976 John Goldsmith introduced autosegmental phonology. Phonological phenomena are no longer seen as operating on one linear sequence of segments, called phonemes or feature combinations, but rather as involving some parallel sequences of features which reside on multiple tiers. Augosegmental phonology later evolved into Feature Geometry, which became the standard theory of representation for the theories of the organization of phonology as different as Lexical Phonology and Optimality Theory.
Government Phonology, which originated in the early 1980s as an attempt to unify theoretical notions of syntactic and phonological structures, is based on the notion that all languages necessarily follow a small set of principles and vary according to their selection of certain binary parameters. That is, all languages' phonological structures are essentially the same, but there is restricted variation that accounts for differences in surface realizations. Principles are held to be inviolable, though parameters may sometimes come into conflict. Prominent figures include Jonathan Kaye, Jean Lowenstamm, Jean-Roger Vergnaud, Monik Charette, John Harris, and many others.
In a course at the LSA summer institute in 1991, Alan Prince and Paul Smolensky developed Optimality Theory — an overall architecture for phonology according to which languages choose a pronunciation of a word that best satisfies a list of constraints which is ordered by importance: a lower-ranked constraint can be violated when the violation is necessary in order to obey a higher-ranked constraint. The approach was soon extended to morphology by John McCarthy and Alan Prince, and has become the dominant trend in phonology. Though this usually goes unacknowledged, Optimality Theory was strongly influenced by Natural Phonology; both view phonology in terms of constraints on speakers and their production, though these constraints are formalized in very different ways.
Broadly speaking Government Phonology (or its descendant, strict-CV phonology) has a greater following in the United Kingdom, whereas Optimality Theory is predominant in North America.

See also


  • Anderson, John M.; and Ewen, Colin J. (1987). Principles of dependency phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1941). Phonemic overlapping. American Speech, 16, 278-284.
  • Bloomfield, Leonard. (1933). Language. New York: H. Holt and Company. (Revised version of Bloomfield's 1914 An introduction to the study of language).
  • Brentari, Diane (1998). A prosodic model of sign language phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Chomsky, Noam. (1964). Current issues in linguistic theory. In J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz (Eds.), The structure of language: Readings in the philosophy language (pp. 91-112). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Chomsky, Noam; and Halle, Morris. (1968). The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Clements, George N. (1985). The geometry of phonological features. Phonology Yearbook, 2, 225-252.
  • Clements, George N.; and Samuel J. Keyser. (1983). CV phonology: A generative theory of the syllable. Linguistic inquiry monographs (No. 9). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-53047-3 (pbk); ISBN 0-262-03098-5 (hbk).
  • de Lacy, Paul. (2007). The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84879-2 (hbk).
  • Firth, J. R. (1948). Sounds and prosodies. Transactions of the Philological Society 1948, 127-152.
  • Gilbers, Dicky; and de Hoop, Helen. (1998). Conflicting constraints: An introduction to optimality theory. Lingua, 104, 1-12.
  • Goldsmith, John A. (1979). The aims of autosegmental phonology. In D. A. Dinnsen (Ed.), Current approaches to phonological theory (pp. 202-222). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Goldsmith, John A. (1989). Autosegmental and metrical phonology: A new synthesis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos & Jacobs, Haike. "Understanding Phonology", Hodder & Arnold, 1998. 2nd edition 2005.
  • Halle, Morris. (1954). The strategy of phonemics. Word, 10, 197-209.
  • Halle, Morris. (1959). The sound pattern of Russian. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Harris, Zellig. (1951). Methods in structural linguistics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Hockett, Charles F. (1955). A manual of phonology. Indiana University publications in anthropology and linguistics, memoirs II. Baltimore: Waverley Press.
  • Hooper, Joan B. (1976). An introduction to natural generative phonology. New York: Academic Press.
  • Jakobson, Roman. (1949). On the identification of phonemic entities. Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague, 5, 205-213.
  • Jakobson, Roman; Fant, Gunnar; and Halle, Morris. (1952). Preliminaries to speech analysis: The distinctive features and their correlates. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Kaisse, Ellen M.; and Shaw, Patricia A. (1985). On the theory of lexical phonology. In E. Colin and J. Anderson (Eds.), Phonology Yearbook 2 (pp. 1-30).
  • Kenstowicz, Michael. Phonology in generative grammar. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Ladefoged, Peter. (1982). A course in phonetics (2nd ed.). London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Martinet, André. (1949). Phonology as functional phonetics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Martinet, André. (1955). Économie des changements phonétiques: Traité de phonologie diachronique. Berne: A. Francke S.A.
  • Napoli, Donna Jo (1996. Linguistics: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pike, Kenneth. (1947). Phonemics: A technique for reducing languages to writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1925). Sound patterns in language. Language, 1, 37-51.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1933). La réalité psychologique des phonémes. Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique, 30, 247-265.
  • de Saussure, Ferdinand. (1916). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.
  • Stampe, David. (1979). A dissertation on natural phonology. New York: Garland.
  • Swadesh, Morris. (1934). The phonemic principle. Language, 10, 117-129.
  • Trager, George L.; and Bloch, Bernard. (1941). The syllabic phonemes of English. Language, 17, 223-246.
  • Trubetzkoy, Nikolai. (1939). Grundzüge der Phonologie. Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague 7.
  • Twaddell, William F. (1935). On defining the phoneme. Language monograph no. 16. Language.

Some phonologists


  • Introducing Phonology, David Odden, 2005, Cambridge.
  • The Handbook of Phonological Theory, John Goldsmith (ed.), Blackwell.

Phonology conferences

phonologist in Asturian: Fonoloxía
phonologist in Bengali: ধ্বনিতত্ত্ব
phonologist in Bosnian: Fonologija
phonologist in Breton: Fonologiezh
phonologist in Bulgarian: Фонология
phonologist in Catalan: Fonologia
phonologist in Chuvash: Фонологи
phonologist in Czech: Fonologie
phonologist in Welsh: Ffonoleg
phonologist in Danish: Fonologi
phonologist in German: Phonologie
phonologist in Estonian: Fonoloogia
phonologist in Modern Greek (1453-): Φωνολογία
phonologist in Spanish: Fonología
phonologist in Esperanto: Fonologio
phonologist in Basque: Fonologia
phonologist in Persian: واج‌شناسی
phonologist in French: Phonologie
phonologist in Galician: Fonémica
phonologist in Korean: 음운론
phonologist in Croatian: Fonologija
phonologist in Ido: Fonologio
phonologist in Indonesian: Fonologi
phonologist in Italian: Fonologia
phonologist in Hebrew: פונולוגיה
phonologist in Swahili (macrolanguage): Fonolojia
phonologist in Latin: Phonologia
phonologist in Luxembourgish: Phonologie
phonologist in Limburgan: Fonologie
phonologist in Lojban: snage'a
phonologist in Hungarian: Fonológia
phonologist in Maltese: Fonoloġija
phonologist in Dutch: Fonologie
phonologist in Japanese: 音韻論
phonologist in Norwegian: Fonologi
phonologist in Norwegian Nynorsk: Fonologi
phonologist in Novial: Fonologia
phonologist in Polish: Fonologia
phonologist in Portuguese: Fonologia
phonologist in Romanian: Fonologie
phonologist in Russian: Фонология
phonologist in Sicilian: Fonoluggìa
phonologist in Simple English: Phonology
phonologist in Slovenian: Fonologija
phonologist in Serbian: Фонологија
phonologist in Finnish: Fonologia
phonologist in Swedish: Fonologi
phonologist in Tagalog: Ponolohiya
phonologist in Turkish: Sesbilim
phonologist in Ukrainian: Фонологія
phonologist in Chinese: 音韻學
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