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How Language Works by David Crystal (Overlook Press, 2005)


The branch of linguistics concerned with the study of speech sounds with reference to their distribution and patterning. Adjective: phonological.

A linguist who specializes in phonology is known as a phonologist.

See also:


From the Greek, "sound, voice"


  • "The aim of phonology is to discover the principles that govern the way sounds are organized in languages and to explain the variations that occur. We begin by analyzing an individual language to determine which sound units are used and which patterns they form--the language's sound system. We then compare the properties of different sound systems, and work out hypotheses about the rules underlying the use of sounds in particular groups of languages. Ultimately, phonologists want to make statements that apply to all languages. . . .

    "Whereas phonetics is the study of all possible speech sounds, phonology studies the way in which a language's speakers systematically use a selection of these sounds in order to express meaning.

    "There is a further way of drawing the distinction. No two speakers have anatomically identical vocal tracts, and thus no one produces sounds in exactly the same way as anyone else. . . . Yet when using our language we are able to discount much of this variation, and focus on only those sounds, or properties of sound, that are important for the communication of meaning. We think of our fellow speakers as using the 'same' sounds, even though acoustically they are not. Phonology is the study of how we find order within the apparent chaos of speech sounds."
    (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook Press, 2005)

  • "When we talk about the 'sound system' of English, we are referring to the number of phonemes which are used in a language and to how they are organized."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encylopedia of the English Language, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

  • "[P]honology is not only about phonemes and allophones. Phonology also concerns itself with the principles governing the phoneme systems--that is, with what sounds languages 'like' to have, which sets of sounds are most common (and why) and which are rare (and also why). It turns out that there are prototype-based explanations for why the phoneme system of the languages of the world have the sounds that they do, with physiological/acoustic/perceptual explanations for the preference for some sounds over others."
    (Geoffrey S. Nathan, Phonology: A Cognitive Grammar Introduction. John Benjamins, 2008)
Pronunciation: fah-NOL-ah-gee

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