Phonetics and phonology - Terminology

What do phoneticians and phonologists do?

Phonetics and phonology are the branches of linguistics that deals with speech sounds. This broad ranging definition is indicative of the broad type of work that phoneticians/phonologists do:

  • The description of individual vowels and consonants used to form words in a particular language or dialect.
  • Sound patterns which stretch over longer chunks of speech (stress, rhythm and intonation).
  • How children develop the ability to speak their native language in a few years.
  • How listeners able to identify where a speaker is from (as well as how old they are, and what their gender is) from just a few seconds of speech.
  • How we can program computers to generate and recognise speech.
  • And many more interesting topics!

Phonetics vs. phonology

Something that is often misunderstood is the difference between phonetics and phonology. In short:

  • Phonetics is the study of how speech sounds are made and perceived.
  • Phonology is about sound systems - how speech sounds are put together and how they are stored in the mind.

To extend this a little further, is is helpful to use an analogy. Consider the way that buildings are designed and made. Glass makes good windows, but makes poor floors. Bricks make good walls, but poor windows. This relates to the study of phonetics - the ways that sounds are made and their relative properties.

But, the materials to make a house aren't much good by themselves - they must be fitted together in some way. This is related to the study of phonology - how speech sounds are put together to form complete structures. So, phonetics is the raw materials and phonology is the design principles and decisions in bringing those materials together.




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