PHONOLOGY
BY
TABITHA STRICKLAND
A STUDENT OF DR. MARK CANADA
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT PEMBROKE
 

INTRODUCTION TO PHONOLOGY

Before the study of the parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, or the passive voice there was sound. A person can make nonsense noises all day long, and that is all that they would be, nonsense, but when you add meaning to those sounds you have PHONEMES, and the study of these phonemes is called PHONOLOGY. You must look beyond the letters themselves on paper and concentrate on the sounds of these sounds like vowel sounds (AEIOU) and consonants (BCTRD). Isolating these sounds will help in the learning process of phonology. Phonology is a very broad study and goes into great detail. The objectives that have been focused on will give you a general idea of what phonology is all about.

 

SOUND PRODUCTION

Speech sounds begin in the lungs and with the air that we breathe in and out every day. It is up to us to utilize the oral cavity or mouth along with the air to form the sounds that we want to make. We decide whether or not the sound we want to make should be released through the nose or the mouth, if the sound should be voiced or voiceless, how and where we will change the air flow through the mouth, and if certain syllables should be stressed or unstressed. We make these decisions every day without even being conscious of it. The two images below, which are from An Introduction to Language, show the different parts of the speech apparatus which we use to make sounds. The second of the two pictures is a table showing how to pronouce the phonemes.


 

BILABIAL STOPS

In the production of the sounds /p/ and /b/, the air is stopped at the lips. The only difference between them is that the /p/ is voiceless and the /b/ is voiced. Try pronouncing the following words and see if you can feel the difference: You may notice or feel a sense of vibration when you pronounce the phoneme /b/. This indicates the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds. Our vocal chords are at work in order to produce the vibration that is felt between the lips and in the vocal chords. If you feel a vibration, then the phoneme is voiced; if not, then the phoneme is voiceless.

 

ALVEOLAR STOPS

In order to produce some sounds, the tip of the tongue stops the air flow at the velum on the roof of the mouth. In the pronunciation of the sounds /k/ and /g/, it feels as if the air is stopped at the back of the throat. Try pronouncing these words in order to feel a difference between the /k/ phoneme and the /g/ phoneme and see if you can tell which one is voiced and which one is voiceless.

If you said that the /k/ is voiceless and that the /g/ is voiced, then you are correct.

 

FRICATIVES

When a speaker pronounces fricative consonants, parts of the mouth such as the teeth and bottom lip partially block the flow of air. It is as though something has obstructed the air flow, and it is fighting its way out. Again, fricatives can be voiced or voiceless also. Some examples of fricative phonemes are the /f/ and the /v/ and the (theta) and the (eth).

The /f/ and the /v/ phonemes are called labio-dental fricatives. This means that the air comes through the teeth and the lips. The pronunciation of the following words will give you a better understanding of the /f/ phoneme, which is voiceless, and the /v/, which is voiced.

Another set of fricative phonemes are the interdental fricatives. We already know that there is an obstruction with the pronunciation of fricatives; this time the obstruction comes between the teeth. These may be more difficult to differentiate because this pair is identical in spelling, "th"; however, they are different in pronunciation. Here are some examples: Because one can feel the vibration in the tongue when pronouncing works such as "the" and "bathe," we know that the phoneme (eth) is voiced, and the (theta) is voiceless.

 

ALVEOLAR FRICATIVES

The production of this sound results from an obstruction of the air flow at the alveolar ridge. Instead of being located near or on the lips, the tongue is now on the alveolar ridge. Two alveolar fricatives are the /s/ phoneme, which is voiceless, and the voiced /z/. Pronounce the following words and see if you can find a difference:

 
PHONEMES

Phonemes represent a range of sound. Sounds or phonemes vary among the differences between speakers whether they be native English speakers or non-native speakers. In Understanding English Grammar, Martha Kolln and Robert Funk give the example of a conversation between a native Spanish speaker and a native speaker of English. The conversation goes something like this:

Amy: "Hey Jose! How was your trip? Did you fly or travel by train?"

Jose: "No, I came by sheep."

Amy: "Sheep? You must mean ship."

Jose: "Yes, that's what I said--sheep."

Instead of using the phonemes in English, Jose is using the phonemes that he knows in the Spanish language. We are aware of the differences between the vowel (i) in sheep and the vowel (I) in ship. Spanish does not have a difference between the vowel sounds; therefore, the pronunciation is different.

Because phonemes are such distinctive sounds, vowels and consonants can change the FORM AND MEANING of a word. Form and meaning go hand in hand. In order to understand a language, one must learn both. Even if you know the meaning of a word, you may not know how to pronounce it; likewise, if you know how to prounounce a word, you don't necessarily know what that word means. Look and consider the forms and meanings of the following words:

All of the above words seem similar, but differ from one another in meaning. The difference between dine and line is that the initial sound of dine is /d/ and the initial sound in line is /l/. The sounds of these two words are identical except for the initial sounds, which are consonants. Each of these consonants is considered a phoneme.

 

MINIMAL PAIRS

When studying phonemes, check to see whether changing a phoneme in a word creates a new word; if it does, then these two words are "minimal pairs," and you have two different phonemes. In other words, if the two different words are identical except for a single sound segment that occurs in the same place, then the two words are called a minimal pair. The words "link" and "pink," "fine" and "wine," and "thrive" and "drive" are all minimal pairs. Remember that all minimal pairs must sound alike in the same place of the word. If they don't, then they are not a minimal pair. Words like "seed" and "soup" are not a minimal pair.

 

ALLOPHONES

A "phonetic segment" is called a phone. The different phones that come from a phoneme are called allophones of that particular phoneme. In the English language, an allophone can be both oral and nasalized for each vowel phoneme. These occurrences don't happen at random, but are rule-governed, as shown by a general principle. As stated before, these rules are known instinctively by the native English speaker, so these are not taught, but are learned as we grow from a child to an adult and listen to the people around us.

 

ASSIMILATION

When words are pronounced separately, the sound is quite different than when words are pronounced together. Try pronouncing the following sentences to see a difference:

Would you please pass the jelly?

Did you finish your homework?

You can notice how the voiced /d/ and the voiceless /y/ are connected in the pronunciation. This is called assimilation. Assimilation is used primarily in conversation. If you were to pronounce these words separately, as in a list, then put them in a sentence, you would notice a difference and the role that assimilation plays.

 
EXERCISES

Using the phonetic alphabet, rewrite the word according to the way that it sounds.

  1. sign
  2. bomb
  3. door
  4. girl
  5. baby
  6. bath
  7. assure
  8. cold
  9. cheese
  10. phone
  11. look
  12. buy
Click here for more information about this exercise.
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kolln, Martha and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.

Fromkin, Victoria and Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 5th ed. Fort Worth: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.
 

Written by Tabitha Strickland
Edited by Mark Canada