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Phonology is the branch of linguistics concerned with the organization of sounds in a language. "Phonology" can also refer to the system of sounds for a particular language. Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that focuses on the sounds themselves. A firm grasp of both is essential for developing listening and speaking skills in your target language, particularly when its phonology differs from your own.



A phoneme is the unit of sound that can be used to distinguish words from each other. For example, in English, the sound pattern of the word "they" (/ðeɪ/) can be made to form the word "day" (/deɪ/) by substituting the first phoneme. As the two sounds can distinguish words in English, they are different phonemes in English. Not all languages are able to make the same distinction between these two English words. In those languages, one of the sounds is likely not a phoneme.


A phone is simply a distinct sound someone produces. A particular phone in a word may or may not affect the meaning of a word. Someone who hears the sequence of sounds [ðeɪ] and [deɪ] is hearing the same sequence of phones regardless of the hearer's ability to distinguish them. A phoneme can be thought of as the sound as represented in a speaker's language while a phone can be thought of as the sound the speaker actually makes when attempting to produce the phoneme.


An allophone is a set of phones representing one phoneme. In English, the phone [ð] is an allophone of the phoneme /ð/ and the phone [d] is an allophone of the phoneme /d/. In most dialects of Spanish, which do not have /ð/ and /d/ as two different phonemes, [ð] and [d] are both allophones of the phoneme /d/. This means that in Spanish, the phoneme /d/ is sometimes pronounced [ð], depending on the surrounding sounds.

Phonemic Inventory[]

A phonemic inventory is the set of phonemes in a language. The size of the phonemic inventory reflects the number of uniquely identifiable sounds used in the language.


Sounds are produced by using articulators (organs used for speech, like the tongue, the teeth, and the roof of the mouth) to manipulate the flow of air in the vocal tract. Phoneticians use the place and manner of a speech sound to distinguish speech sounds from each other. Using these features to describe sounds is important because describing a sound with its orthographic representation (e.g. an "I sound") will almost certainly be unable to properly distinguish it from similar sounds across languages with different orthographies and phonemic inventories (and even across dialects of a single language).


Consonants are produced by completely or partially obstructing the flow of air in the vocal tract. The part of the tract in which this occurs is referred to as the place of articulation. The configuration of the organs obstructing the flow of air is called the manner of articulation. These are the terms used to describe the place of articulation:

1. Bilabial, 2. Labiodental, 3. Dental, 4. Alveolar, 5. Post-alveolar, 6. Palatal, 7. Velar, 8. Glottal

Place Description Example
Bilabial both lips /b/ - first sound in the English "big"
Labiodental bottom lip against upper teeth /f/ - first sound in the English "fig"
Linguolabial tongue against top lip none in English; extremely rare in speech; [ʙ̺] represents the "farting sound" produced by blowing with the tongue between both lips
Dental tongue against top lip /ð/ - first sound in English "the"
Alveolar tongue against or near alveolar ridge (area just behind upper teeth) /d/ - first sound in English "day"
Post-alveolar tongue just behind alveolar ridge /ʃ/ - first sound in English "ship"
Retroflex tongue curled between alveolar ridge and hard palate (hard part making up the front of the top of the mouth) [ɻ] - first sound in English "red" in some dialects pronounced as an allophone of /ɹ̠/
Palatal tongue against hard palate [j] - first sound in English "yes"
Velar tongue against velum (soft part making up the back of the top of the mouth) /k/ - first sound in English "cat"
Uvular tongue against or near the uvula none in English; /ʁ/ - first sound in French "roue" (wheel)
Pharyngeal constriction of the pharynx (back of the throat above the esophagus) none in English; /ʢ/ - first sound in Iraqi Arabic عَام (year)
Glottal constriction of the glottis (opening between vocal cords) /h/ - first sound in English "hat"

The manner of articulation is the function of the speech organs in the place of articulation. The terms to describe the manners of articulation are:

Manner Description Example
Nasal allowing air to leave through the nasal cavity, usually by preventing air from leaving the mouth /m/ - first sound in English "mat"
Stop (or plosive) preventing all air from leaving, then releasing it /d/ - first sound in English "day"
Fricative forcing air through a small channel /s/ - first sound in English "say"
Affricate sound beginning as a stop but ending in a fricative, usually in the same place /t͡ʃ/ - first sound in English "chew"
Approximant forcing air between articulators but not narrowly enough to create turbulence /ɹ̠/ - first sound in "red" in most American English dialects
Flap (or tap) quickly touching an articulator against another but without the buildup of a stop [ɾ] - sound between the vowels in "better" in many English dialects of North America, Australia, and the UK as an allophone of /t/
Trill vibrations between two articulators or of a single articulator /r/ - one way of pronouncing the first sound in Standard German "rot" (red)

In conjunction with a fricative, affricate, flap, or approximant manner, a consonant can be lateral, meaning that air is pushed along the sides of the tongue. An example is /l/, the first sound in English "lip."

Below is the full IPA chart for pulmonic egressive consonants. Note that other consonants, including clicks and sounds made by inhaling as present in many African and Amerindian languages, are not present.



Vowels are produced by adjusting three properties: the space between the tongue and the top of the mouth (openness), the distance of the highest point of the tongue from the back of the mouth (backness), and whether the lips are rounded (roundedness). A diphthong is a combination of two adjacent vowels in one syllable.

IPA vowel chart 2005.png


Additional modifications to the way a sound is pronounced can be represented with diacritics, which are symbols attached to the phoneme letter. One exaple is the diacritic ◌ʰ which indicates aspiration (an extra burst of breath). An allophone of /t/ in English with aspiration is [tʰ], the first sound of the word "till." This sort of modification may result in an allophone like in this English example, or it could create a separate phoneme. For example, in Korean, /t/ and /tʰ/ are two different phonemes (represented by the Korean characters ㄷ and ㅌ, respectively).

Phonological Rules[]

A phonological rule is an expression of a change to the way that a phoneme is pronounced. /t/ becomes aspirated (along with other voiceless stops) pronounced as [tʰ] at the beginning of a stressed syllable in english. Different phonologies have different rules that govern pronunciation.

Learning another Language's Phonology[]

  • Learn the sounds of your own language and the International Phonetic Alphabet. Recognize the place and manner of articulation for every sound of your known languages. You should be able to transcribe any word you produce with the IPA and be able to identify the features of every sequence of sounds in a phonetic transcription even if you are unable to discriminate or pronounce all the sounds (although memorizing the IPA chart is not required).
  • Identify the sounds of the desired dialect of the target language. Take note of the sounds that do not exist as phonemes in any language you are proficient in.
  • Identify the phonological rules and constraints of your target language so that you will know the correct pronunciation of each word (even if you can't actually pronounce it).
  • Learn to discriminate the phonemes. The simplest way to do this is to train by practicing discriminating between audio samples of similar sounds. A minimal pair is a sequence of sounds that differs only by one sound. For example, [pɪn] and [pʰɪn] are minimal pairs. Someone who is studying a language that has /p/ and /pʰ/ as separate phonemes (e.g. Korean) can listen to audio samples of these minimal pairs and then guess which one was heard. Ideally, the audio samples would be minimal pairs pronounced by a native speaker of the target language, but any similar sequences of sounds should suffice. Eventually, you should be exposing yourself to a wider variety of samples from different voices (made for learning purposes or otherwise) and practicing identifying the target sound until you are able to do so for natural speech.
  • Practice pronouncing the phonemes. Attempt to reproduce the sound by identifying its phonetic features. There are plenty of diagrams and videos showing the position of the tongue and other articulators that can be used as a reference. Get a native speaker of your target language (or at least a language that has the phonemes you are training to produce) to evaluate your performance.

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