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study of the sound systems of languages. It is distinguished from phoneticsphonetics
, study of the sounds of languages from three basic points of view. Phonetics studies speech sounds according to their production in the vocal organs (articulatory phonetics), their physical properties (acoustic phonetics), or their effect on the ear (auditory
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, which is the study of the production, perception, and physical properties of speech sounds; phonology attempts to account for how they are combined, organized, and convey meaning in particular languages. Only a fraction of the sounds humans can articulate is found in any particular language. For example, English lacks the click sounds common to many languages of S Africa, while the sound th often poses problems for people learning English. Also, possible combinations of sounds vary widely from language to language—the combination kt at the beginning of a word, for example, would be impossible in some languages but is unexceptional in Greek. In phonology, speech sounds are analyzed into phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can change the meaning of a word. A phoneme may have several allophones, related sounds that are distinct but do not change the meaning of a word when they are interchanged. In English, l at the beginning of a word and l after a vowel are pronounced differently, so that the l in lit and the l in gold are allophones of the phoneme l; in other languages the difference between the two sounds could change the meaning of a word and so would be considered different phonemes.


See N. Chomsky and M. Halle, The Sound Pattern of English (1968); M. Kenstowicz and C. Kisseberth, Generative Phonology (1979); P. Hawkins, Introducing Phonology (1984).



the branch of linguistics that deals with the sound structure of language and that studies the structure and function of the meaningless, minimum distinctive units of a language, that is, syllables and phonemes.

Phonology, in contrast to phonetics, focuses not on sounds as individual phenomena but on the function they fulfill in speech as components of more complex semantic units—morphemes and words. For this reason, phonology is sometimes called functional phonetics. The Russian linguist N. S. Trubetskoi defined the relationship between phonology and phonetics as follows: the basis of any phonological description is the determination of distinctive sound oppositions, and a phonetic description is the basis and the source of material for a phonological description.

The basic unit of phonology is the phoneme, and phonology focuses on the study of phonemic oppositions, which in their aggregate constitute a language’s phonological system, or its phonological paradigmatics. A phonemic system is described in terms of distinctive features, which are the basis of phonemic oppositions. Distinctive features are combinations of articulatory and acoustic properties of sounds and are manifested in such phonemic contrasts as voiced-voiceless and open-closed. A major concept of phonology, that of position, facilitates the description of phonological syntagmatics, that is, the principles according to which phonemes are manifested within the different environments of the speech sequence. In particular, phonological syntagmatics deals with the principles according to which phonemic oppositions and phonemic positional variations are neutralized.

In accordance with the widely accepted theory of the organization of language into levels, phonology distinguishes segmental (phonemic) and suprasegmental (prosodic) levels of language. In suprasegmental levels of language there are units that correspond to such phonemes on the segmental level as the prosodeme and toneme. These phonemes are also described in terms of certain distinctive features, for example, the features of register and contour, which describe tonal oppositions. The main function of both segmental and suprasegmental units of phonology is to identify and differentiate meaningful units of language.

Phonology also investigates the demarcative function of sound units, that is, the signaling of word and morpheme boundaries in the spoken chain. An example of a phonological boundary signal is the fixed stress in Czech, which indicates the beginning of a word. The German phonemes [h] and [ƞ] may occur only at the beginning and end of a word, respectively, thus indicating its boundaries. A final function of phonological units, and particularly of such suprasegmental features as duration and pitch, is to express the emotional state of the speaker and his attitude toward what is being said.

Synchronic phonology studies the phonological system of a language at a certain historical period. Diachronic phonology, on the other hand, provides a phonological explanation of phonetic changes taking place during the history of a language by describing the phonologization, dephonologization, and rephonologization of sound distinctions, that is, the transformation of positional variants of a single phoneme into independent phonemes, the elimination of a given phonemic opposition, and alterations in the basis of phonemic opposition, respectively.

During the 1970’s, generative phonology has developed within generative grammar. Generative phonology is essentially a system of rules for the placement of stress and for the transformation of abstract morphemic symbols into concrete sound chains. The primary unit in generative phonology is not the phoneme but the distinctive feature, since all phonological rules are formulated in terms of distinctive features and positions. The concepts of generative phonology are used in both synchronic and diachronic phonology.

Phonology became an independent linguistic discipline in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Its founders were N. S. Trubetskoi, R. Jakobson, and S. O. Kartsevskii, who presented the fundamental concepts of phonology at the First International Congress of Linguists, held in 1928 in The Hague. A landmark in the development of phonology was Trubetskoi’s Principles of Phonology (1st German ed., 1939), the first systematic discussion of the aims, principles, and methods of phonology. However, the foundations of phonology had been laid in the late 19th century by the German linguist J. Winteler and the British linguist H. Sweet. F. de Saussure and K. Biihler helped develop the theoretical basis of phonology. Of particular importance was the contribution of I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, who established the concept of the phoneme and its features, although this concept was to change over the course of time.

Two Russian schools of phonology were based on the studies of Baudouin de Courtenay: the Leningrad school, which included L. V. Shcherba, L. R. Zinder, M. I. Matusevich, and L. V. Bondarko, and the Moscow school, which included V. N. Sidorov, R. I. Avanesov, P. S. Kuznetsov, A. A. Reformatskii, A. M. Sukhotin, and M. V. Panov. Also based on the work of Baudouin de Courtenay were the original concepts of S. I. Bernshtein. The Moscow and Leningrad schools differed in their concept of the phoneme and in their view of the degree to which phonology is independent of morphology, that is, in their view of the role of morphological criteria in determining the identity of phonemes.

Phonology was the subject of analyses by members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, the center of phonological studies in Europe. Phonology is presently studied at the London School of Linguistics, founded by D. Jones in the 1930’s, and by the English School of Phonology. Linguists associated with this center, including J. Firth, W. Allen, F. Palmer, and R. Robins, made important contributions to the development of suprasegmental phonology from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. Phonology has been developed to a lesser degree by the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle.

Several scholars not formally associated with any linguistic school but ideologically closest to the Prague Linguistic Circle have made major contributions to the development of phonology, among them A. Martinet, J. Kurylowicz, B. Malmberg, and A. Sommerfelt. Other important contributions have been made by the American descriptive linguists L. Bloomfield and E. Sapir and by their students M. Swadesh and W. Twaddell. An important achievement of American phonology has been the development of the method of distributional analysis by C. Hockett, H. Gleason, B. Bloch, G. Trager, and K. Pike.


Trubetskoi, N. S. Osnovy fonologii. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from German.)
Martinet, A. Printsip ekonomii v foneticheskikh izmeneniiakh (Problemy diakhronicheskoi fonologii). Moscow, 1960. (Translated from French.)
Zinder, L. R. Obshchaia fonetika. Leningrad, 1960.
Bernshtein, S. I. “Osnovnye poniatiia fonologii.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1962, no. 5.
Jakobson, R., and M. Halle. “Fonologiia i ee otnoshenie k fonetike.” In the collection Novoe v lingvistike, fasc. 2. Moscow, 1962.
Baudouin de Courtenay, I. A. Izbrannye trudy po obshchemy iazykoznaniiu, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1963.
Osnovnye napravleniia strukturalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Prazhskii lingvisticheskii kruzhok: Sb. St. Moscow, 1967.
Reformatskii, A. A. Iz istorii otechestvennoi fonologii: Ocherk, khrestomatiia. Moscow, 1970.
Shcherba, L. V. Iazykovaia sistema i rechevaia deiatel’nost’. Leningrad, 1974.
Martinet, A. Phonology as Functional Phonetics. London, 1949.
Hoenigswald, H. M. Language Change and Linguistic Reconstruction. Chicago, 1960.
Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, vol. 1. The Hague, 1962.
Chomsky, N., and M. Halle. The Sound Pattern of English. New York, 1968.



The study of the sound components of a spoken language.
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