Author: Linda Shockey


Phonology is the study of contrastive sound units in language. It can be taught as 'principles of phonology' which looks at universal properties of sound systems or as 'the phonology of a language' which talks about standard and variant pronunciations in a particular system. Phonology is a crucial part of many areas of linguistics, such as first- and second-language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and historical linguistics.

Table of contents


Phonology is usually taught either as 'principles of phonology' or as 'phonology of a language.'

The former looks at properties of sound systems which are common to all languages. The first of these is that the number of contrastive units (i.e. those that can make a difference in meaning, sometimes called 'phonemes') will be smaller than the number of sounds produced on a regular basis in any language ('allophones' or variants) , and that the mapping between the regularly-produced sounds and the underlying phonological system will be relatively predictable. Second, the variants will be conditioned by one of two sorts of environmental properties:

  1. the static description of the larger unit in which they occcur (so they can be word-initial/final, stressed/unstressed, followed by a voiced/unvoiced segment) within a lexical item or
  2. the dynamic frame into which they are inserted (next word begins with vowel/consonant, next word is stressed/unstressed, consonant at beginning of next word is voiced/ unvoiced).

For example, English /t/ has many varieties.

  1. It is normally aspirated at the beginning of a stressed syllable ('team'), unaspirated after [s] (steam), may be tapped invervocalically ('better').
  2. In addition, word-final /t/ is often pronounced as a glottally-reinforced 't' or a glottal stop if the next word begins with a consonant. If the next word begins with a vowel /t/ is pronounced without the glottal element in many accents of English.

These generalisations differ from language to language: in Finnish, [d] is a variant of [t], whereas it is normally not in English.

Secondly, there are similar variant-producing forces working in many languages: final obstruents become devoiced, intervocalic plosives lose their closure and become voiced, the vowel system in stressed syllables is larger than that in unstressed syllables. Some scholars attribute these to the workings of the speech production mechanism (inertia), some to properties of the human perceptual system, some to natural tendencies of sound systems with no specific physical cause.

Thirdly, all languages have sound sequences which are allowable (such as syllable-initial [pl] in English) and others which are not (such as syllable-initial [tl] in English). The principles which govern legal sequences are thought to be part of phonology.

Courses in principles of phonology normally look at data from a large variety of different languages, searching for underlying patterns which can be explained by linguistic principles. In most universities, lectures are supplemented by seminars and online exercises. Courses also look at phonological theories to find how easily they accommodate the sound patterns found. Theories are seen as favoured or disfavoured depending on the number of generalisations they can explain. Unsurprisingly, none has been found to be entirely satisfactory.

Courses in the phonology of a particular language normally focus on the variants which can occur and on how these differ from style to style and from accent to accent. This approach to phonology is hence a central part of sociolinguistics. Finding he relationship of variation in pronunciation to historical change in pronunciation is the domain of both sociolinguistics and historical linguistics.

Other areas in which phonology is prominent include:

  • areal linguistics (languages in contact, including language death (disappearance of minority languages))
  • first and second language acquisition
  • disordered acquisition
  • language deterioration in cases of trauma and senescence

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from