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Phonetics vs. Phonology

One of the trickier distinctions for students is the difference between phonetics and phonology.  When you study the phonetics of a language, you’re interested in the details of the sounds.  You might study how they are produced (articulation), the patterns in their speech waves (acoustics), or the impression they make on the human ear (perception).  When you study phonology, you use  thse phonetic details to study how those sounds pattern and combine in a given language and how speakers classify those sounds.  For example, English speakers rarely have an initial “s” sound followed by a “b” sound in a given word.  Often research in phonetics and phonology diverges considerably, but the fields are very complimentary.

Using the IPA Chart

Linguists usually use the International Phonetic Alphabet (shown top right of this page) to represent sound segments in the worlds languages.  When you look at the table at the top of this picture you will see a grid that features many of the symbols for consonants, sounds which require closure of the vocal tract.  The row labels show the manner of articulation:  the effect that the closure has on the air in the vocal tract.  The column lables show the place of articulation:  the location in the vocal tract that shows the most closure. 

In the consonant chart, you will see that some of the squares have symbols and some do not.  The symbols represent place/manner combinations that have been found in the world’s languages.  Empty squares mean that we have not found languages with those sounds, and shaded squares mean that we are not likely to find them. (For example, they might be anatomically impossible.)  In squares that have symbols, an additional piece of information can be descerned about the sound each symbol represents:  symbols on the left side of the square repesent  sounds that are produced with little or no vocal chord vibration or voicing.  We call them voiceless sounds.  Sounds on the right side of each square represent sounds that are made with vocal chord vibration (voicing).  We call these voiced sounds.

English speakers do not use all of the consonant symbols in this table, nor do we use all of the symbols in the sections below it.  We use some of the vowel symbols that are given in vowel chart on the lower left corner.  In this chart, symbols on the left represent vowel sounds that require gestures in the front of the tongue and those on the right  require more gesturing by the back of the tongue.  Those symbols which are higher in the chart represent sounds that are produced with the tongue in a higher position in the mouth, those which are lower are produced with a lower tongue.  These two factors are called the anteriority (frontness/backness) and the height of the vowel.  Vowels are also characterized by the degree of lip rounding, nasality, and voicing.   


Phonologists study the sound patterns of a language.  Specifically, they are interested in how speakers organize sounds into classification units called phonemes.  Put simply, things that we might treat as one sound in English might be treated as two in another language and vis versa.  A phoneme is the mental representation that a speaker has of this sound, and the allophones of that sound (like allomorphs of morphemes) are the different ways in which that sound can be produced.  Often allophones are not noticiably different to speakers of a language (hence their classification as “one” sound in the brain.)

Phonologists are also interested in how phonemes can be grouped together in a language.  So for example, you’ll notice that English has lots of words that start with the “s” sound and are followed by the “p” sound, but none that start with the “s” sound and are followed by the “d” sound.  This reflects larger patterns of preferred production in our language, but it may not reflect patterns in other languages.  Phonologists study these patterns to learn what trends there are in organizing sounds, information that may ultimately help us to better understand how the brain organizes information more generally.


The links on this page are intended to help people learn about how the vocal tract works and how phoneticians use the International Phonetics Alphabet (or IPA) to transcribe these sounds.  They include Wikipedia links, most of which have been edited by trained linguists, links to other phonoticians professional webpages, and useful YouTube videos

  • UCLA’s tribute page to  Peter Ladefoged: This is a link to the personal webpage of Peter Ladefoged (1925-2006).  He is considered to be one of the greatest phoneticians of the last century, and his work has shaped how phonetics is taught around the world.  He also known as the voice of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. 
  • Interactive IPA Chart: The chart in this link has English sounds AND sounds from other languages.  It is interactive, so you should be able to click on the symbols to hear the sounds.
  • A Course in Phonetics:  Online access to illustrations and excercises from Ladefoged’s most famous book.
  • Vowels and Consonants: This is a google-books link to another one of Ladefoged’s books.
  • The Acoustical Society of America:  The professional organization of linguists and others who study sounds.
  • John Wells’s Phonetic BlogThoughts on language from a great phonetic researcher.
  • Ladefoged’s Illustration of the /baed/-/baet/ continuum: Though we, as English speakers, categorize /d/ and /t/ as two very different sounds, they really only differ in voicing, a term which describes whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating during their production.  The amount of voicing, or vocal ord vibration, decreases slightly in each production.  Even though the degree of vibration is decreasing at a consistent interval in each production, you will notice that you perception of those sounds is very striking!  That is, the change from /d/ to /t/ does not “sound” gradual to you because your brain has learned that this is an important difference in your native language.
  • Robert Hagiwara’s Mystery SpectorgramSee if you can guess what sound these speech waves represent!
  • Vocal Tract AnimationDan Hall (University of Toronto) has put together animations of the vocal tract that allow students to see what each articulator is doing.  Click on the sound you want to see and watch the cartoon act it out.
  • SIL Vocal Tract Labels: The Summer Institute in Linguistics (SIL) has provided an illustration of the articulators in the vocal tract.
  • The Speech Accent Archive:  This page, maintained by Steven Weinberger at George Mason University, provides you with a wide range of examples of dialect differences in the English language.
  • WikiMap of the Cot/Caught Merger: Sometimes even major changes can happen in a language without anybody really noticing.  The merger of what used to be two different vowel sounds (those in “caught” and “cot”) in American English started among White folks on the West Coast, and has probably crossed the Mississippi River by now.  Other groups who participate in this change (besides Whites from the western half of the United States) include Canadians, White Pittsburgers, and (many) Mexican Americans–and these groups may have different reasons for having acquired the same pattern.

Even More Phonetics/Phonology Links

Transcription Tutorial on Youtube

Actual Video of Vocal Cord Vibrations, produced with a camera scope.  (Fair warning.):

The Cardinal Vowels With Daniel Jones


Famous linguist Daniel Jones’ voice teaching you the sounds that go with the IPA vowel symbols.  (Prof Jones (1881-1967) helped design the IPA)

Phonetics Rap:  for those of you who might learn better by rhyme

Geeky entertainment using the IPA.  This may or may not help you study the IPA:

Broad Transcription of Either/Either Song on You Tube

Youtube IPA Consonant Practice

An instructor walks you through recreating the IPA consonant chart.  (Might be more helpful to some of you than to others, depending on your learning style.)


1 Response to Phonetics/Phonology

  1. Pingback: Resources: New (to LingEducator) Links for Learning about the IPA | The LingEducator Blog

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