Phonetic and phonological aspects of words

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Whereas syntax is about sentence formation, and semantics about sentence interpretation, phonetics and phonology cover the field of sentence utterance. Phonetics is concerned with how sounds are produced, transmitted and perceived (we will only look at the production of sounds). Phonology is concerned with how sounds function in relation to each other in a language. In other words, phonetics is about sounds of language, phonology about sound systems of language. Phonetics is a descriptive tool necessary to the study of the phonological aspects of a language. Phonetics and phonology are worth studying for several reasons. One is that as all study of language, the study of phonology gives us insight into how the human mind works. Two more reasons are that the study of the phonetics of a foreign language gives us a much better ability both to hear and to correct mistakes that we make, and also to teach pronunciation of the foreign language (in this case English) to others. As phonetics and phonology both deal with sounds, and as English spelling and English pronunciation are two very different things, it is important that you keep in mind that we are not interested in letters here, but in sounds. For instance, English has not 5 or 6 but 20 different vowels, even if these vowels are all written by different combinations of 6 different letters, "a, e, i, o, u, y". The orthographic spelling of a word will be given in italics, e.g. please, and the phonetic transcription between square brackets [pli:z]. Thus the word please consists of three consonants, [p,l,z], and one vowel, [i:]. And sounds considered from the phonological point of view are put between slashes. We will use the symbols in figure.

Phonetics vs. Phonology

Phonetics deals with the production of speech sounds by humans, often without prior knowledge of the language being spoken. Phonology is about patterns of sounds, especially different patterns of sounds in different languages, or within each language, different patterns of sounds in different positions in words etc.

2. Phonology as grammar of phonetic patterns

The consonant cluster /st/ is OK at the beginning, middle or end of words in English.

At beginnings of words, /str/ is OK in English, but /ftr/ or /tr/ are not (they are ungrammatical).

/tr/ is OK in the middle of words, however, e.g. in "ashtray".

/tr/ is OK at the beginnings of words in German, though, and /ftr/ is OK word-initially in Russian, but not in English or German.

3. A given sound have a different function or status in the sound patterns of different languages

For example, the glottal stop [] occurs in both English and Arabic BUT ... In English, at the beginning of a word, [] is a just way of beginning vowels, and does not occur with consonants. In the middle or at the end of a word, [] is one possible pronunciation of /t/ in e.g. "pat" [pa]. In Arabic, // is a consonant sound like any other (/k/, /t/ or whatever): [íktib] "write!", [daíia] "minute (time)", [a] "right".

4. Phonemes and allophones, or sounds and their variants

The vowels in the English words "cool", "whose" and "moon" are all similar but slightly different. They are three variants or allophones of the /u/ phoneme. The different variants are dependent on the different contexts in which they occur. Likewise, the consonant phoneme /k/ has different variant pronunciations in different contexts. Compare:

keep /kip/ The place of articulation is fronter in the mouth [k+h]

cart /kt/ The place of articulation is not so front in the mouth [kh]

coot /kut/ The place of articulation is backer, and the lips are rounded [khw]

seek /sik/ There is less aspiration than in initial position [k`]

scoop /skup/ There is no aspiration after /s/ [k]

These are all examples of variants according to position (contextual variants). There are also variants between speakers and dialects. For example, "toad" may be pronounced [tëUd] in high-register RP, [toUd] or [tod] in the North. All of them are different pronunciations of the same sequence of phonemes. But these differences can lead to confusion: [toUd] is "toad" in one dialect, but may be "told" in another.

5. Phonological systems

Phonology is not just (or even mainly) concerned with categories or objects (such as consonants, vowels, phonemes, allophones, etc.) but is also crucially about relations. For example, the English stops and fricatives can be grouped into related pairs which differ in voicing and (for the stops) aspiration:

Voiceless/aspirated : ph th kh f s h

Voiced/unaspirated : b d v z ð (unpaired)

Patterns lead to expectations: we expect the voiceless fricative [h] to be paired with a voiced [], but we do not find this sound as a distinctive phoneme in English. And in fact /h/ functions differently from the other voiceless fricatives (it has a different distribution in words etc.) So even though [h] is phonetically classed as a voiceless fricative, it is phonologically quite different from /f/, /s/, // and //. Different patterns are found in other languages. In Classical Greek a three-way distinction was made between stops:

Voiceless/aspirated: ph th kh

Voiced/unaspirated: p t k

Voiced (and unaspirated): b d

In Hindi-Urdu a four-way pattern is found, at five places of articulation:

Voiceless aspirated: ph th h ch kh

Voiceless unaspirated: p t c k

Voiced unaspirated: b d etc.

Breathy voiced ("voiced aspirates"): b d etc.

6. Shapes of vowel systems: some common examples:

How many degrees of vowel height are there in Bulgarian? On the face of things, it appears to be not very different from Tübatulabal, which has three heights: three high vowels, two mid vowels and one low vowel. But if we look more closely into Bulgarian phonology, we see that the fact that schwa is similar in height to /e/ and /o/ is coincidental: the distinction that matters in Bulgarian is /i/ vs. /e/, /u/ vs. /o/ and // vs. /a/, i.e. relatively high vs. relatively low. As evidence for this statement, note that while all six vowels may occur in stressed syllables, only /i/, /e/, // and /u/ occur in unstressed syllables.
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