By Kamil Wiśniewski July 12th, 2007
Phonology is a branch of linguistics, closely related to phonetics, which studies the manners of organization and usage of the speech sounds in natural languages. The history of this science reaches ancient times, as the Greek and Roman grammarians also investigated the phonological systems of their languages. The foundations for modern phonological inquiries were laid in the nineteenth century by linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Henry Sweet. Phonetics deals with the smallest chunks of language, yet it is in connection with other linguistic disciplines like morphology, because adding morphemes may change the meaning of words and their pronunciation, frequently following patterns. Phonetics is also related with syntax, as depending on a function of a word in a sentence it can be pronounced differently with a shifted phrasal stress and with changed intonation. Similarly, this branch of linguistics is connected with semantics because of intonation constraints. While phonetics studies the production and perception of the speech sounds (for instance, in the expression ‚London photography’, phonetics would analyze all the sounds present in the words ‚London’ and ‚photography’, describing how they are produced), phonology is more interested in the abstract, that is mental aspects of these sounds. It inquiries into and describes the patterns of sounds and sound types which native speakers acquire intuitively. However, since the term ‚speech sounds’ seems to be used mainly in phonetics, phonologists speak of phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound in the human language. Yet it is not identical with the sound itself, it is rather a theoretical representation without mentioning its position in a syllable, word, or phrase (for instance, there are eleven sounds in ‚contract hire’ but only nine phonemes). One important feature of phonemes is their contrastiveness which enables their identification. It is by contrasting the two phonemes, for example /k/ and /g/ that can be seen that they differ in at least one feature, like voicing. All languages have a set of such distinctive phonemes. By and large, it seems that the majority of languages have about 30 phonemes, but there are some that have as few as 11 or as many as almost 150. The English language, it is said, has about 43 phonemes, depending on the variety of English in question. Even though the number of phonemes may differ from language to language, the sets are always limited, but enable speakers to create unlimited numbers of words. In English the word step consists of four phonemes, and the word pest has the same four phonemes, yet since they are in different order the meaning is not the same. Phonology also investigates the possible sequences of phonemes in a given language. Therefore, it indirectly studies word formation processes, as they too are constrained by the rules of phonotactics, that is allowable organization of phonemes. Thus it is very unlikely that any English word should begin with ng- or the sound /?/ while this sound is quite common in the middle, or at the end of English words. However, the fact that phonotactic constraints do not allow for some sounds in a language to occur in certain positions, which confines the word-coining and word formation processes of a language, it does not mean that such words do not appear in that language. Sometimes loan words may break the phonological rules of a given language and still be in use, as is the case with the initial position of the / /?n-/ sound in English. By and large, words with such a sound in the initial position have started appearing in English only recently and all of them are loan words: schnapps, schnitzel, schmo. The analysis of the possible sequences of phonemes is focuses not only on phonemes themselves, but also on syllables and clusters. A syllable must comprise a vowel, but usually there is also a consonant (C) before the vowel (V). Syllables are frequently described as consisting of an onset, which is a consonant, or a few consonants, and a rhyme, often subdivided into a nucleus (a vowel), and coda (any following consonants). In the English language coda does not always have to occur in a syllable, like for instance in the words: he (CV), or too (CV). Clusters, or consonant clusters are simply two or more consonants one after another. Clusters, like other phonotactic rules, are characteristic of a given language, for instance the /st/ cluster in English can be an onset: street, or a coda: highest, however it is impossible in Japanese. Apart from analyzing the phonemes of a language, clusters and syllables, phonology also deals with the processes that occur in everyday, fluent speech. The most frequent processes that can be observed in casual speech are assimilation and elision. Assimilation is a process in which certain sounds copy the characteristics of another, adjacent sound. Elision is a process in which some sounds, or even syllables are omitted and not pronounced at all, although in other situations they are normally uttered. Elision occurs not because of laziness of speakers, but to make the pronunciation more fluent.
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