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5) Introduction to Phonology: Making Words out of Sounds

Language which is spoken is, to some extent, both free and bound. It is free because it is not tied to a page. A word which is spoken has vanished into mere memory the moment it has been said. In contrast, a word which is written has an air of permanence.

Ever heard anybody say, ‘you had better get that in writing’?

There is a sense that nothing is final until it is written. Writing etches the word into existence – it turns language from a sound which is heard into an object which is seen:

A subtle change overtakes words when they move from the domain of sound to that of sight. They become objects occupying space, things which can be moved around on a word processor, anonymous bits of type detached from their author (Finch, 2003. p. 48).

Think about the difference between a painting and a piece of music in performance. A painting exists in physical reality. It is there as you look at it, and it remains in a constant state of existence even when you leave the room. A painting can be in this continual state of existence for hundreds of years.

In contrast, a piece of music vanishes once it has been performed. A musician can perform the best version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, or Skinner and Badiel’s Three Lions for ever – but as soon as the performance is over, it ceases to exist. It is mere history.

Actually, the analogy with music is particularly adept here, because when you think about it The Lark Ascending does exist in a state of permanence through the ‘score’ (a written form of music). When the score is performed though, something happens. The performer makes the music come alive. At the same time, they invest the music with their own particular emphases, phrasings and tempo. They stress the moments which are important to them, and slide over those which are not. They may hold one particular note for a fraction of second longer than another performer might, and in so doing invest an added sense of emotion to the music.

In other words, although the music exists in a written form, the performance adds a rich context of additional meaning. As Geoffrey Finch notes, the same could be said of the difference between written and spoken language:

Spoken language normally exists in a rich context. Apart from rhythm and intonation, it’s accompanied by non-verbal signals, that is, gestures, facial movements, and expressions. As a consequence, written words are far more likely to be misunderstood than spoken ones. Speech doesn’t need to be as tidy as written language precisely because it provides many more aids to interpretation than simply the words themselves (Finch, 2003. p. 48).

So spoken language carries with it a rich context which adds additional meaning. If you were to see the written words 'have a seat', then we might be able to deduce that the words are inviting us to sit down. However, observance of facial expressions while the words are being spoken might enable us further to determine whether we are about to be offered something pleasant (like a cup of tea) or something nasty (like a telling-off).

These aspects of language in use are sometimes referred to as parole. Parole is distinguished from langue, which means the grammatical and systematic properties of language itself. These terms were coined by the influential linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

More than just body language and expressions though, the ways in which words are spoken – the tone and pitch of the sounds which are made – can impact upon meaning. Again, Geoffrey Finch writes:

Speaking, then, is in some ways akin to singing. The sounds we produce are notes. And – as with music – rhythm, tempo, and pitch are all important in speech productions (Finch, 2003. p. 50).

For example, read and consider two different performances of a Shakespeare speech.

(Worth noting, that some of you may well not have understood the words the character is saying – but the addition of inflectional and tonal changes, together with body language, helps us to get the gist whether we are confident Shakespearean scholars or complete beginners.)

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,--legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Version 1:

Version 2

Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Which of the two characters strikes you are being more evil?
  • Which of the characters are you more sympathetic towards?
  • How are these different effects generated?

What is Phonetics?

We have already seen that written forms of language can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts. Sentences are made up of clauses and phrases, which are made up of words, which are made up of morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest unit of written language, and the study of morphemes is known as morphology.

In the same way, spoken language contains separate sound elements. The smallest unit of spoken language is the phoneme, and the study of phonemes is known as phonology. For example, consider the word ‘cat’. This word has three distinct phonemes. First there is a /k/ sound for the ‘c’ in ‘cat’. Secondly, there is an /æ/ sound, for the ‘a’. Finally there is a /t/ sound, for the letter ‘t’.

How to write phonemes

As you know, when you want to indicate in writing that a word is part of a quote, you place it in “quotation marks”. In linguistics though, we need to indicate more.

When we want to analyse the word ‘that’ for example, we place the word in single inverted commas to make the word stand out.

This is fine for picking out words as written text. If, though we want to write about sound we need to indicate as much using a different convention. This convention is to enclose the phonemes in forward stroke. Thus, the word ‘that’ transcribed phonetically would be written as /ðæt/, and the word ‘cat’ would be transcribed as /kæt/.

Articulatory Phonetics

Since phonetics is the study of speech sounds, this aspect of linguistic study does cross over somewhat into biology. Speech sounds are produced through the expulsion of air from the lungs through the vocal apparatus. This is a process which, Jeffries tells us, is known as the egressive pulmonary airstream mechanism (Jeffries, 2006. p. 10).

This expelled air passes through the vocal chords, which are a complex mechanism of cartilage, muscle and flaps which can contract and expand in order to vary the tone of the sound being produced. The following diagram shows the vocal chords. Note that the trachea is the pipe which runs down the neck (the windpipe). The cartilage at the bottom of the diagram pulls the vocal flaps on either side of the trachea, closing the space and creating the sound variance.

If you want to see a demonstration of how this works, just try whistling. Note how the variations in the pitch of the whistle are dependent on the tongue expanding and contracting within the mouth to reduce the space through which the air passes. For a more grisly demonstration, you can see a video of the vocal chords in actual here:

The combination of muscle and cartilage in the vocal chords is sometimes referred to as the glottis.

The Epiglottis and the Pharynx

Once the air has passed through the vocal chords though, there are still plenty of options for variations in sound. Just past the vocal chords, the air meets the epiglottis (so-called because it sits above the glottis). This piece of cartilage is used to direct food or liquid down the ‘right’ pipe. If you ever find yourself with something going down ‘the wrong way’ it is usually because the epiglottis has misdirected food down the trachea towards the lungs, instead of towards the intestines.

Once past the epiglottis, the air enters the pharynx. This cavity, too, can expand and contract with the vocal chords to create more sound variations, like the vocal chords.

The Velum (soft palate)

The next significant sound-producing vocal apparatus is the Velum (or the Soft Palate). Like the epiglottis, the velum can act as like a switch: It can be raised or lowered in order to direct air through the mouth (the oral cavity) or through the nose (the nasal cavity).

This can make a significant difference to the sound which is produced. When the velum is raised, the air cannot pass through the nasal cavity so the tone which is produced sounds very open. You can the change of sound this makes when you think about the different between the /p/ sound and the /m/ sound. For /p/, the sound is channelled solely through the oral cavity, while for /m/ the mouth is closed and so the velum is lowered in order for air to pass through the nasal cavity.

The Tongue

The tongue is one of the more sophisticated shapers of sound in language. It is composed of four main sections: the tip, the blade, the body and the root:

When the tip of the tongue is inserted between the teeth, a ‘th’ sound is made, as in ‘mother’ (/ð/) or ‘path’ (/θ/). If the blade of the tongue is raised to touch the alveolar ridge, then sounds like /t/, /d/ can be made. Raising the blade of the tongue to the alveolar ridge, but curling the tongue slightly produces an /s/ sound.


Say the words in the following pictures slowly to yourself, and see if you sense how your tongue is used to manipulate the sounds and form the words:

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