What is phonology?


What is phonology?

As we have learned, phonetics is the study of all human speech sounds and how they are produced. Phonology is the study of the sound system of a particular language. This includes the sounds ("phones") and rules for their combination and pronunciation.
Both phonetics and phonology can be generally described as the study of speech sounds. As we have learned, phonetics is more specifically the study of how speech sounds are produced, what their physical properties are, and how they are interpreted. On the other hand, phonology investigates the organization of speech sounds in a particular language. While we might find the same sounds in two or more languages, no two languages organize their sound inventories in the same way. These examples will make this point more clearly.
Example 1: Both English and Vietnamese have the nasalized [N] sound. In Vietnamese, the [N] sound can start words, such as in the common Vietnamese name Nguyen. But the [N] sound can never be the first sound in English words. The reason so few of us native English speakers can pronounce Nguyen correctly is that it doesn't follow the English pattern.
Example 2: Both Japanese and English have the sounds ("phones") [s] and [S]. In English, the two phones can distinguish meaning, as shown by words like [So:r] shore and [so:r] sore, where alternating between [s] and [S] affects the meaning of the word: shore means something different than sore. The occurrence of these two sounds is unpredictable, since we cannot look at the rest of the word and determine which sound will occur. That is, if we know that a word in English ends in [o:r], we cannot predict whether the word will start with [s] or [S] since both sore and shore are different, but possible, words.
In Japanese, on the other hand, these two sounds are predictable from their environment. Sounds are predictable when we expect to see one sound or the other based upon the sounds that precede or follow it. If we know that a Japanese word contains the sound [i:], we know that it can be preceded by [S] as in [Si:], but not by [s]—the combination [si] does not occur in Japanese.
So while Japanese and English contain the phones [s] and [S], the languages differ in that in Japanese we can predict the occurrence of one versus the other and in English we cannot. If someone learning Japanese were to use [s] before [i], the meaning of the word would not change. Instead, a native speaker of Japanese would probably think that the speaker sounded funny or had a foreign accent. On the other hand, if a learner of English were to make the same substitution in English, then the meaning of the word is likely to change. Imagine confusing [s] and [S] and saying "I have to [Se:v] shave more money each month."
The study of the way speech sounds form patterns (such as [N] can start words in Vietnamese but not in English; the occurrence of [s] and [S] is predictable in Japanese but not in English) is phonology. As a native speaker of your language, you know a lot about its phonology:
  • You know how to produce sounds which form meaningful utterances
  • You know how to add the right sounds to make plurals, past tenses, possession, etc.
  • You know you can omit sounds without changing the word (you can say general without or without the middle vowel and it remains the same)
  • You know you can change sounds without changing the word (you can say "fifty" or "fity" and still mean 50)
  • You know what combinations of sounds are legal, whether they make an actual word (black) or not (blick)
  • You can recognize a foreign accent.
We'll look at some of the phonological processes that you know and have known since you were a child and yet at first may seem unreasonably complex. Keep in mind that we are only making obvious what you already know, and its complexity is in a way a wondrous feature of your own mind.

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