the phonetics-phonology distinction

This awesome Language Log post, which includes some audio examples and waveform data, reminds me of how I often used to get confused about the phonetics-phonology distinction. These are both among the major branches of linguistics, along with syntax, semantics, morphology, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics. (Fun activity: get a bunch of linguists together and ask them which branch is most important.) Coming from outside of linguistics, I often found the difference between phonetics and phonology the hardest to parse, considering that they both concerned with sound and the voice. Here’s how to remember.

Phonetics is the study of the acoustic and articulatory aspects of spoken language, the way sounds are produced by human speakers. You might think of phonetics as the study of the sounds qua sounds, how they’re made by people and what their physical (and physiological) properties are. Phonology, in contrast, is the study of systems of sound, how various phonetic attributes of language are situated together to form spoken language. If you’re studying how the tongue is involved in the production of the fricative s, you’re studying phonetics. If you’re studying what other sounds that fricative can be combined with in Arabic, you’re studying phonology. Phonetics are often studied cross-linguistically, while phonology is almost always concerned with a particular language or system of languages. Here’s a thorough website I found that explores the distinction.

Incidentally, if you’re into phonology and waveforms, you might try downloading Praat. Praat is a freeware program used to analyze speaking. Praat is capable of analyzing spoken language on a variety of levels, such as temporal measures like syllables per run, or elements of pitch and prosody. (“Praat,” by the way, is not an abbreviation. The software was developed at the University of Amsterdam; “praat” is the Dutch word for talk.) Don’t let its status as freeware fool you; it’s a powerful piece of software used in serious research. For instance, a 2010 study conducted in my home department at Purdue by Ginther, Dimova, and Yang used Praat to correlate between temporal measures of oral fluency in English and scores on the Oral English Proficiency Test. But it can also be fun to download and play around with, if you’re interested.

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