Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Phonology

Last week we began our new Intro to Linguistics series which will provide a brief explanation of each of the major fields of linguistics. We looked at phonetics in our first instalment, and today we'll be covering the other sound-based field, phonology.

Phonology is the branch of linguistics that deals with the use of speech sounds to encode meaning in linguistic items. To put it simply, phonetics studies how you physically make the sounds, while phonology tries to explain the patterns those sounds make and how they can be combined to create meaning.

The field of phonology analyzes several different aspects of speech sounds, so we thought we'd start out listing some key terms you should be familiar with.

Phonemes - These basic units of a language's phonology are joined together to create meaningful units such as words. They're the smallest part of a word that can cause a change in meaning.

Here's Spot hiding in the poppies.
Minimal pairs - When two words differ in only one phoneme yet have different meanings, they form a minimal pair. For example, "mill" [mɪl] and "miss" [mɪs] differ phonetically only in their final consonant and have different meanings. This means that [l] and [s] are a minimal pair. If you can't find a minimal pair for two sounds, then they are likely variations of the same phoneme, also known as...

Allophones - This is when two or more sounds make up the same phoneme. Sounds strange, right? If you're an English speaker, you may be surprised to find out that there are two allophones for the phoneme /p/. In IPA, the word "spot" is written [spot], while "pot" is written [pʰot]. That little 'h' shows it's an aspirated sound, which means that you let out a puff of air when you say it. If you think we're making it up, hold your hand in front of your mouth while you say both words. If you say them correctly, you'll feel a tiny burst of air after you pronounce the 'p' in "pot" but not when you say it in "spot". While you'd probably notice if someone said "spot" using [pʰ], it wouldn't change the meaning of the word, so they aren't considered distinct phonemes.

Allomorphs - These occur when a unit of meaning, or morpheme, can change in sound without changing the meaning. In English, the past tense suffix "-ed" is pronounced in multiple ways, from /t/ in "fished" to /ɪd/ in "hunted" and so on. 

Many other topics are covered within the field of phonology. The study of phonotactics deals with the limits on which sounds can be used in which positions in languages, and how they can be combined. For example, the phonological rules for English don't allow for a word to start with /mp/, but the combination can go at the end of a word such as "jump". Prosody is also studied, and refers to the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech, as well as emphasis, irony, and our favorite, sarcasm.