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The Sound Systems of Language (let's talk phonology!)

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Stating the obvious

It’s no secret that different languages use different speech sounds. But what most people don’t realize is that behind every one of those individual speech sounds is something bigger...something almost magical. It’s a system called phonology. In this article, we're breaking down what phonology is and why it matters. 

What is phonology?

In the simplest of terms, phonology is the sound system of a language. 

As crazy as it may sound, it's quite literally an invisible system that your brain uses to filter raw speech sounds into patterns of meaningful language.

If you know a thing or two about linguistics, you're likely wondering how phonology is different from phonetics. Here’s the deal. When you study the phonetics of a given language, you are studying the individual speech sounds that make up that language. When you study the phonology of a language, you’re studying its overall sound system. That means how the sounds relate to and interact with one another. 

In this way, linguists like to say that phonetics and phonology are like two sides of the same coin. They both deal with speech sounds – but they come at it from different sides. 

And it’s worth mentioning here that there are two ways the word ‘phonology’ can be used. It can be used to refer to the field of academic study (i.e. phonology is a subfield of linguistics). It can also be used to refer to the sound systems of specific languages (i.e. every language has its own phonology). We use ‘phonology’ in both ways throughout this article.

Phonology boils down to 2 main concepts

They are phonemes and phonological rules. These concepts can be a little bit abstract, and the best way we've found to describe them is as follows. Phonemes are like your brain’s version of organizational bins for the various sound categories in your language. Phonological rules are like the instructions that help you decide for any given utterance which sound to pull from what specific bin. Now that we have the general “bin metaphor” down, let’s talk about how these phonemes bins and phonological rules actually work.

Phonemes explained

Let’s start with phonemes. What exactly are they? Simply put, phonemes are units of sound that are meaningfully contrastive in a language. Here’s an example. As an English speaker, you use and hear the /t/ sound many times a day. But have you ever noticed that not every /t/ you hear or use sounds the same?

That’s because the way we pronounce our individual speech sounds changes based on things like context and environment. Sometimes those changes are small; sometimes they’re more noticeable. For instance, the way you pronounce the ‘t’ sound in the word 'team' likely sounds different from how you pronounce it in the word 'mountain.' But here’s the thing: both of those words use English /t/s – even though they sound really different. 

So, how does your brain know that both of those sounds are really representing the same underlying /t/? Well, as your brain learned the English sound system, it created mental bins to organize those sounds in a meaningful way. And as you probably guessed, those mental bins are called phonemes.

Remember -- phonemes are units of sound that are meaningfully contrastive in a language. For example, English speakers have one mental bin for the /r/ sound and another one for the /l/ sound. That’s because in English, /r/ and /l/ are two separate phonemes. But speakers of languages with different phonologies (like Japanese or Korean) have just one bin that contains both of those sounds. That’s because in Japanese and Korean the /r/ and /l/ sound are part of one shared underlying phoneme category.

So, that’s why when you hear a Japanese or Korean speaker learning English, they might use an /r/ where an /l/ should be or an /l/ where an /r/ should be. To their ears, those two sounds could just sound like two versions of the same underlying phoneme. Now, if you’re a native speaker of English – that might sound crazy to you. After all - /r/ and /l/ seem to sound completely different! But they only sound different to you because English phonology has taught your brain to bin them as separate speech sounds. The truth is - when you break down the /r/ and /l/ sounds phonetically and acoustically, they’re actually quite similar.

Okay - so now, we know what phonemes are. But you might be wondering – why do we need them? Can’t we just hear each sound as it is – and not worry about putting them into little mental bins? Well, think of it this way. Humans categorize things because it helps us make sense of the world and navigate it more efficiently. It’s like how you organize your home. With the exception of the junk drawer we all pretend we don’t have, we store items that are similar together. Food goes in the fridge. Clothes go in the dresser. Cleaning products go in the closet. Simply put, having categories – like phonemes – help us quickly and efficiently decide what variations or differences are worth noticing – and which aren’t. If we didn’t use phoneme categories to organize incoming speech sounds, language would be really hard for us to process.

Now here’s the real question – when you’re speaking and you’re about to use a word with a /t/ sound – how do you know which of the various possible pronunciations of it to use? The answer is: phonological rules. 

Phonological rules explained

Phonological rules are basically pronunciation rules. Here's an example. In Korean, when you have a /p/ followed by an /n/, you actually pronounce the /p/ as an /m/. 

Long story short, phonological rules explain why we don’t always pronounce our speech sounds the same way.

These changes in how we pronounce individual speech sounds usually happen because the sound interacts with other sounds in the words around it. And these rules usually make it easier to speak, to make it easier for our mouths to blend one sound into the next. If you want to learn more about it, check out this check out this blog on sound blending. 

How does this apply to language learning?

It can be hard to learn the sound system of a new language. If you are struggling to master pronunciation patterns in a target language, take solace in the fact that you can gently remind yourself that it takes to learn new phoneme categories and necessary phonological rules. You can extend that to others, too, by showing empathy for those who are in the process of learning your language's phonological system.

3 main takeaways

  • Phonology is the study of how speech sounds fit together in a language. 

  • Every language’s sound system is organized based on phonemes and phonological rules.

  • Phonemes are the organizational sound bins of your language’s sound system; phonological rules are the instructions for how those sounds fit together

 

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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