What Is Phonology?

Phonology is the study of linguistic sound systems. Whereas phoneticians study the physical properties of speech sounds, phonologists investigate sounds' functional properties. Phonologists especially investigate sound substitutions (the replacement of one sound with another), and the functional consequences that these substitutions have for word meaning. Thus, replacing one sound with another...

  • ...may change word meaning (for example. "brick" versus "trick"): meaning-changing sound substitution
  • ...may make one word sound exactly like another, and thus obliterate the phonetic evidence for distinctions in word meaning (for example "phone" often sounds exactly like "foam" when you say "phonebook"): meaning-merging sound substitution
  • ...may maintain the same word meaning (for example, if you introspect carefully, you'll notice that the "t"s in "invite someone" and "invite anyone" are produced differently, but they don't change word meaning): meaning-maintaining sound substitution

Ideally, phonological data are acquired in the field; text analysis may provide a less reliable source of data. By analyzing many different languages, cross-linguistic tendencies in sound patterning may be revealed, which require scientifically coherent explanations.

The broadest aim of phonology is to isolate the distinct though interacting pressures that underlie both the cross-linguistically common, and language-particular sound patterns that our data analyses reveal. Broadly, these derive from:
  • Speech production and sound perception (phonetics and psychoacoustics).
  • The cognitive mechanisms employed to organize the enormously rich content of the ambient speech signal into a functionally coherent linguistic system (acquisition).
  • The functional pressures underlying the interplay of phonetic and cognitive mechanisms that effect the changes that sound systems may undergo as they are passed from generation to generation, and within and between speech communities (sound change, variation, analogy, etc.).

Phonology thus conceived is an inherently interdisciplinary field of study. It seeks explanation—wherever it may lie—for the sound patterns that our linguistic investigations reveal, both cross-linguistically prevalent and language-particular.

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daniel silverman