What is phonology?


Phonology is the study of how sounds are organized and used in natural languages.


The phonological system of a language includes

  • an inventory of sounds and their features, and
  • rules which specify how sounds interact with each other.

Phonology is just one of several aspects of language. It is related to other aspects such as phonetics, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics.

Here is an illustration that shows the place of phonology in an interacting hierarchy of levels in linguistics:

Comparison: Phonology and phonetics

Phonetics …
Phonology …
Is the basis for phonological analysis. Is the basis for further work in morphology, syntax, discourse, and orthography design.
Analyzes the production of all human speech sounds, regardless of language. Analyzes the sound patterns of a particular language by
  • determining which phonetic sounds are significant, and
  • explaining how these sounds are interpreted by the native speaker.

Models of phonology

Different models of phonology contribute to our knowledge of phonological representations and processes:

  • In classical phonemics, phonemes and their possible combinations are central.
  • In standard generative phonology, distinctive features are central. A stream of speech is portrayed as linear sequence of discrete sound-segments. Each segment is composed of simultaneously occurring features.
·         In non-linear models of phonology, a stream of speech is represented as multidimensional, not simply as a linear sequence of sound segments. These non-linear models grew out of generative phonology:

What is a phoneme?


A phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.


Phonologists have differing views of the phoneme. Following are the two major views considered here:

  • In the American structuralist tradition, a phoneme is defined according to its allophones and environments.
  • In the generative tradition, a phoneme is defined as a set of distinctive features.


Here is a chart that compares phones and phonemes:

A phone is …
A phoneme is …
One of many possible sounds in the languages of the world. A contrastive unit in the sound system of a particular language.
The smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of speech. A minimal unit that serves to distinguish between meanings of words.
Pronounced in a defined way. Pronounced in one or more ways, depending on the number of allophones.
Represented between brackets by convention.
[b], [j], [o]
Represented between slashes by convention.
/b/, /j/, /o/

Examples (English): Minimal pair

Here are examples of the phonemes /r/ and /l/ occurring in a minimal pair:

  • rip
  • lip

The phones [r] and [l] contrast in identical environments and are considered to be separate phonemes. The phonemes /r/ and /l/ serve to distinguish the word rip from the word lip.

Examples (English): Distinctive features

Here are examples of the English phonemes /p/ and /i/ specified as sets of distinctive features:

/p/ /i/

-syllabic +consonantal -sonorant +anterior -coronal -voice -continuant -nasal+syllabic -consonantal +sonorant +high -low -back -round +ATR -nasal

What is generative phonology?


Generative phonology is a component of generative grammar that assigns the correct phonetic representations to utterances in such a way as to reflect a native speaker’s internalized grammar.


The following are crucial components of generative phonology:

·         Levels of phonological representation
Generative phonology posits two levels of phonological representation:
    • An underlying representation is the most basic form of a word before any phonological rules have been applied to it. Underlying representations show what a native speaker knows about the abstract underlying phonology of the language.
    • A phonetic representation is the form of a word that is spoken and heard.
·         Phonological rules
Phonological rules map underlying representations onto phonological representations. They delete, insert, or change segments, or change the features of segments.
·         Distinctive features
Distinctive features make it possible to capture the generalities of phonological rules.
·         Linearity
A stream of speech is portrayed as a sequence of discrete sound segments. Each segment is composed of simultaneously occurring features.

What is autosegmental phonology?


Autosegmental phonology is a non-linear approach to phonology that allows phonological processes, such as tone and vowel harmony, to be independent of and extend beyond individual consonants and vowels.

As a result, the phonological processes may influence more than one vowel or consonant at a time.

Multi-dimensional representations

Autosegmental phonology treats phonological representations as multi-dimensional, having several tiers. Each tier is made up of a linear arrangement of segments. The tiers are linked to each other by association lines that indicate how the segments on each tier are to be pronounced at the same time.

Examples (Mende, Sierra Leone)

·  In an autosegmental analysis of Mende, tone is not a property of individual vowels or syllables, but is a property of the word as a whole.
·  In the examples in the following table, the tone given in the left most column is the tone specified for all the words in that row, regardless of how many syllables a word contains.
1 syllable
2 syllables
3 syllables
H nda@ ‘mouth’ ngu@lu@ ‘tree’ kE@lE@lE@ ‘fraction’
L kpa$ ‘debt’ be$le$ ‘trousers’ kpa$ka$l"Ý ‘chair’
HL mbu^ ‘owl’ ke@nya$ ‘uncle’ fe@la$ma$ ‘junction’
LH mba& ‘rice’ na$vo@ ‘money’ nda$vu@la@ ‘sling’
LHL mba ‘companion’ nya$ha^ ‘woman’ n"Ýk"Ûl"Ý ‘peanut’

Formal representation

Here are some examples of formal representations of HL Mende tone:

What is a syllable?


A syllable is a unit of sound composed of

  • a central peak of sonority (usually a vowel), and
  • the consonants that cluster around this central peak.


Syllable structure, which is the combination of allowable segments and typical sound sequences, is language specific.


Onset Initial segment of a syllable Optional
Rhyme Core of a syllable, consisting of a nucleus and coda (see below) Obligatory
– Nucleus Central segment of a syllable Obligatory
– Coda Closing segment of a syllable Optional

Example (English)

Here is an example of the syllable structure of the English word limit:


Here are some kinds of syllables:

Heavy Has a branching rhyme. All syllables with a branching nucleus (long vowels) are considered heavy. Some languages treat syllables with a short vowel (nucleus followed by a consonant (coda) as heavy. CV:C, CVCC, CVC
Light Has a non-branching rhyme (short vowel). Some languages treat syllables with a short vowel(nucleus) followed by a consonant (coda) as light. CV, CVC
Closed Ends with a consonant coda. CVC, CVCC, VC
Open Has no final consonant CV


Here is a diagram of a syllable:

What is metrical phonology?


Metrical phonology is a phonological theory concerned with organizing segments into groups of relative prominence. Segments are organized into syllables, syllables into metrical feet, feet into phonological words, and words into larger units.

This organization is represented formally by metrical trees and grids.

Example (metrical tree)

Here is an example of a metrical tree of the word metricality:

On the word and foot level, s and w indicate relative stress. The w indicates weaker prominence, and the s indicates relative stronger prominence.

The internal syllable structure in the above figure has been omitted and is represented by triangles. Within the syllable, s and w refer to stronger and weaker degrees of sonorance, not stress, and s corresponds to the syllable nucleus, which is the most sonorant segment in a syllable.

In metrical trees, the strongest unit of the word is the one that is dominated by s all the way up the tree.

Example (metrical grid)

Here is an example of a metrical grid of the word metricality:

Stress within feet and words can be represented as a metrical grid:

In a grid, the most prominent unit is the one that is dominated by the most number of x’s.

What is lexical phonology?


Lexical phonology is an approach to phonology that accounts for the interactions of morphology and phonology in the word building process.

The lexicon plays a central, productive role in the theory. It consists of ordered levels, which are the domain for certain phonological or morphological processes.


Here is a diagram of the overall structure of the lexical phonology model:


The following are crucial components of lexical phonology:

·         Lexical and post-lexical rules
Here is a table that compares lexical and post-lexical rules:
Lexical rules …
Post-lexical rules …
Apply only within words. Apply within words or across word boundaries.
Are prone to exceptions. Do not have exceptions.
Require morphological information. Require syntactic information, or no grammatical information at all.
Must be structure-preserving. Are not necessarily structure-preserving.
Will not be blocked by pauses. Can be blocked by pauses.
Apply first. Apply later.
·         Levels
English has between two and four levels of morphology in the lexicon. The levels within the lexicon are ordered so that, to get to Level 3 from Level 1, a word must pass through Level 2. A word cannot go back to a previous level once it has left one level and gone on to another level.
Halle and Mohanan propose the following four levels of morphology in the lexicon:
    • Level 1: Class 1 derivation, irregular inflection
    • Level 2: Class 2 derivation
    • Level 3: Compounding
    • Level 4: Regular inflection
We will consider the first two levels of affixation because they differ significantly. Here is a table that compares affixation on Levels 1 and 2:
Level 1
Level 2
Affixes include:
-ate, -ion, -ity, -ic, sub-, de-, in-
Affixes include:
-ly, -ful, -some, -ness, re-, un-, non-
Affixation causes stress shift:
Affixation does not affect stress:
Trisyllabic shortening occurs:
No trisyllabic shortening occurs:
Nasal assimilation occurs:
in + legal -> illegal
Nasal assimilation is blocked:
un + ladylike -> unladylike, not *ulladylike
Affixes may attach to stems:
re-mit, de-duce
Affixes attach only to words:
re-open, de-regulate
Affixation is less productive and more exception ridden. Affixation is more productive and less exception ridden.

Durand 1990 178
·         Bracket erasure convention
The bracket erasure convention is an important convention in lexical phonology. It ensures that the morphological brackets introduced within a certain level are erased before entering the next level.
Here is an example of the bracket erasure convention. The brackets in pressurize are erased before it enters Level II.
Level I [press] [-ure] [-ize]
+sfx [press] [-ure]
+sfx [[[press] [-ure]] [-ize]]
Level II [re-] [pressurize] (Bracket erasure)
+pfx [[re-] [pressurize]]

Examples (English)

Here is an example of an application of lexical phonology:

·  Here are the words to be considered in this example:
    • sane [sejn] / sanity [sQnIti]
    • neighbor [nejb«&u0279;] / neighborhood [nejb«&u0279;hUd] *[nQb«&u0279;hUd]

·  The following rule applies across level 1 morpheme boundaries:
·  A tense vowel becomes lax when a short word is lengthened by adding a suffix, so that the words ends up having at least three syllables.
Katamba 1989 139

·  This derivation demonstrates affixation in lexical phonology accompanied by the application of a phonological rule, trisyllabic shortening.


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