Phonetics and Phonology: Understanding Speech Sounds and Their Functions

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Phonetics is the study of sounds made by the human vocal apparatus, used in speech. These are called speech sounds. This science tries to describe how they are made, to classify them and to give some idea of their nature. Phonetics is a more general discipline than phonology, in that it is concerned with speech sounds without reference to their function or role in any particular language.

Different branches of phonetics can be recognized. Acoustic phonetics studies the transmission of speech sounds through the air from the speaker to the hearer and is thus concerned with measuring and analyzing the movement and vibration of air. This involves investigation within the framework of physics. Auditory phonetics is the study of the hearing of speech sounds and deals with such questions as how we perceive and recognize different speech sounds. Such investigations take place within the framework of psychology. Articulatory phonetics is the study of the production of speech sounds by the human vocal apparatus, of how a speaker produces, by means of the organs of speech, the sounds he or she uses in speech and of how we can classify and describe such sounds.

Phonology is the study of the selection that each language makes from the vast range of possible speech sounds and of how each language organizes and uses the selection it makes. It tends to be more particular than phonetics, in that it is usually concerned with the patterning of sounds in a particular language and in that it is concerned with the patterning of sounds in a particular language.

Phonetics is concerned with what speech sounds are, their nature, while Phonology is concerned with what they do, their function.

Phonetics => form

Phonology => function

A phoneme is an abstract entity which has particular phonetic forms on particular occasions. It is not strictly speaking, a sound, but rather a class or category of sounds.

An allophone is thus a concrete sound representing an abstract class or group of sounds all having the same function and place in the system, a phoneme. Differences which do not matter, which are of form only, belong to the domain of phonetics, while differences which do something, which have a function, belong to the domain of phonology.

Free variation: if two or more allophones can replace one another, i.e., if they can occur in the same position, these allophones.

If two or more allophones cannot replace one another, i.e., if they do not occur in the same position, because their occurrence is determined by the surrounding sounds, these allophones are said to be contextual variants or in complimentary distribution. They are mutually exclusive.

BBC Pronunciation: the accent model recommended for foreign learners studying British English.

Processes of speech production

  • Respiration: Respiration is the process of modifying the air from the lungs for use in breathing and speaking.
  • Phonation: the modification of the airstream from the lungs by the movement of the structures in the laryngeal area i.e. production of sound at the level of the larynx.

The vocal folds are comprised of a “vocal ligament” (two strong bands enclosed within the vocal folds) and the “thyroarytenoid muscle” (a broad, thin muscle that lies parallel and functions in fine tonal control of the vocal folds).

The glottis, is the name given to the space between the vocal folds.

Process of phonation.

  1. The glottis is constricted (not necessarily completely closed) by the contraction of the muscles;
  2. Upon reaching the constriction, the air from the lungs increase the amount of pressure against the glottis and creates a pressure;
  3. The pressure at the glottis continues to increase as the folds close from the pressure; and
  4. The folds are blown apart and air is emitted (flowed) causing repeated open and closed automatically.
  • Resonation: the modification of the airstream from the lungs by the size, shape, and movement of the structures of nasal area, oral area, and pharyngeal areas.

The structures of resonation are:

  • Nasal Cavity
  • Oral Cavity
  • Pharyngeal Cavity

The process of modifying sound from the larynx is accomplished by the air stream moving through the nasal cavity, oral cavity, and pharyngeal cavity (parts of throat that connects inner nose to the throat).

The changing shape created by muscle movement and varying tension of the membranes in the cavities produces the various formants.

  • Articulation: the process of modifying the air stream by the various articulators (the structures of the vocal and pharyngeal cavity that produce speech sounds by coming in contact with another articulator).
  • Articulators:
  • 1) Lips: the outermost articulator. They can be pressed together, brought into contact with the teeth or rounded. Sound can be bilabial (when the upper and lower teeth come in contact,) or labiodental (when there is lip-to-teeth contact.)
  • 2) Teeth: the tongue is in contact with the upper side teeth for many speech sounds. Sounds made with the tongue touching the front teeth are called dental.
  • 3) Tongue: it is a very important articulator because of its great flexibility. Parts of the tongue: tip, blade, front, center, back, root.
  • 4) Alveolar ridge: between the top front teeth and the hard palate. Produces alveolar sounds, such as /t/.
  • 5) Hard palate: The “roof” of the mouth. It is important for resonance and as a point of attachment for muscle tissue.
  • 6) Soft palate or velum: located behind the hard palate. Important to produce velar sounds like /k/, /g/, /ŋ/, and because it allows the air to pass through the nose or the mouth.
  • 7) The glottis is the space between the vocal folds when open. This area is important in both the production of glottal sounds and for differentiating voiced and voiceless sounds.
  • 8) Pharynx: a tube that begins just above the larynx. Its top end is divided in two: one part being the oral cavity and the other the nasal one.
  • Active articulators: those that come in contact with the passive, that don’t move.
  • Passive articulators: those the active articulators come in contact with.

Vowel is a speech sound produced by humans when the breath flows out through the mouth without being blocked by the teeth, tongue, or lips. They are important because vowels are the nucleus (peak) of the syllable.



                                    Rhyme                 Nucleus (peak)            Coda

                        Usually a consonant        Always a vowel             C/V/CVC

                        Combination of V and C

There are 12 vowels used in British English.

7 short vowels:

/ɪ/: bin, fish, pin.

 /e/: bet, men, yes.

/æ/: bat, man, gas, cat.

/ʌ/: cup, but, rush.

/ɒ/: pot, gone, cross.

/ʊ/: put, pull, push.

/ə/: ago, teacher, about.

5 long vowels:

/i:/: beat, mean, peace.

/ɜ:/: bird, fern, purse.

/ɑ:/: card, half, pass.

/ɔ:/: board, torn, horse.

/u:/: food, soon, loose.

Quadrilateral: represents all the different positions that the tongue may have or adopt when producing a vowel sound in any language. The quadrilateral describes the vocal tract from a front-to-back dimension, and vowels are basically described using the height of the tongue in connection with the part of the tongue that raises the most.

Vowels are described based on their physical dimension: closeness, frontness, rounding, tenseness and length.

Closeness: refers to the position of the mandible. It can be close, close mid, mid, open mid and open.

Frontness refers to the horizontal position of the tongue in relation to the front or back of the mouth. It ca be front, center and back.

Rounding refers to the position of the lips during the production of the vowel.

Tenseness: Tense vowels require tension of particular muscles for production and are long in duration. /i:/, /ɜ:/, /ɑ:/, /ɔ:/, /u:/.

Lax vowels are produced when the muscles are in resting position and are short in duration. /ɪ/, /e/, /æ/, /ə/, /ʊ/, /ɒ/, and /ʌ/.

Length: vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound. The long vowels in British English are: /i:/, /u:/, /3:/, /ɔ:/, and /ɑ:/. In phonetics, the symbol for denoting vowel length is (ː), but it is often written as a colon (:)

Diphthongs are sounds which consist of a movement or glide from one vowel to another. It’s different from a monophthong or pure vowel, which remains constant, doesn’t glide. In terms of length, diphthongs are like long vowels. The first part is much longer and stronger than the second part.

They can be classified in centring or closing diphthongs. The centring ones end in /ə/. The closing can end in a /ʊ/ or a /ɪ/.


/ɪə/: beard, Ian, fierce.

/eə/: aired, cairn, hair.

/ʊə/: tour, pure, moored.


/eɪ/: pay, face, pain.

/aɪ/: five, time, nice.

/ɔɪ/: join, voice, void.

/əʊ/: home, load, most.

/aʊ/: now, loud, house.

A triphthong is a glide from one vowel to another and then to a third, all produced rapidly and without interruption. They are very difficult to produce and recognize. They can be looked at as the five closing diphthongs, with /ə/ added at the end.

/eɪə/: layer, player.

/aɪə/: liar, fire.

/ɔɪə/: loyal, royal.

/əʊə/: lower, mower.

/aʊə/: power, hour.

The principal cause of difficulty for a foreign learner is that in present-day English the extent of the vowel movement is very small, except in very careful pronunciation. The middle vowel can hardly be heard and the resulting sound might be difficult to distinguish from a diphthong or a long vowel.

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