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The Study of Phonology


Phonology is the study of sound systems of a language. It explains how speech sounds are arranged, how they are organized and how they give meaning when used in a language. To help in the study of this speech sounds, we analyze the phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound which can alter the meaning of sound when interchanged. A phoneme is then divided into allophones. These are defined as related sounds that are different but do not change the meaning of a word when interchanged. For example, in the word lit, l is a phoneme, in the word gold, l is also a phoneme and therefore the phoneme here is l. The two sounds may be thought to be the same, how ever thorough conscious saying of the words will show a difference in the region of the mouth where it is produced. We can conclude that the phoneme l has two allophones, each said in different part of the mouth. (Justice, 2004)

Another good example is the phoneme /p/, In the word pit and spit. The phoneme /p/ has two allophones. Careful or conscious listening and analysis of the two words will show that pit is accompanied by a puff in air but in spit there is no air. When we want to represent the two, one will be /p/ and the other one will be [p_]. (Justice, 2004)

The questions here are, are there specific rules or do we just randomly aspirate /p/ in either of the two words? The earlier is true, and the rules will depend on the environment in which the phoneme is being used. When we talk of environment, we mean the position of the phoneme within the word, and the sound surrounding the phoneme. For example in the phoneme /p/, the aspirated allophone is used initially in pit and the uninspired is used internally in spit. However in some other words like keep and cop, the allophones of /k/ are both at the beginning of the word. In this case we can not use the environment above but we will use the second environment, the sounds surrounding the phoneme. (Justice, 2004)

Assessing the environment concept

Identify the phonemes in the word [k_ip]. Describe the environment of each phoneme in the word [k_ip]

The phonemes are; [k], [_], [i] and [p]

K is initial in the word, [_] and [i] are internal

Another important aspect is for one to be able to determine whether two different sounds are different phonemes or allophones of the same phoneme. For example if we consider the words cull and gull, they have a different meaning but they sound the same except at one sound. Since they have distinct sounds at some point, then we conclude that those different sounds are different phonemes. These different sounds are [k] and [_] respectively. Those sounds that have only one different sound are called minimum pairs and they are said to be contrastive sounds because if we interchange them, they bring a contrast meaning. There are also non-contrastive sounds. These are perceived to be the same sounds and these are the ones that bring about allophones of the same phoneme. For example the word keep and cap, [k_ip] and [k_p], may be perceived to be same sounds but close analysis will prove that they are not. What then is their difference? They have two differences, one, the sounds are not contrastive and two they are not in the same environment as described earlier. The surrounding sound in [k_ip] is a front vowel [i] appearing after the sound [k_]. The surrounding sound in [k_p] is [_] a back vowel. Note that [k] will only appear before central and back vowels like [_], [o], [a], and [u] while [k_] will only appear before front vowels like [i], [æ], and [e]. (Justice, 2004)

Assessment of the contrastive sounds concept

Consider the following words and identify the ones that are a minimum pair

Tick, stick, sock, stock, mast, mask, sick, task and kiss.

Sick and stick are a minimum pair because they have only one difference. The same thing applies to sock and stock. (Justice P.W)

Assessment of the non-contrastive sounds concept.

In the words below, identify the words with non-contrastive sounds.

Keep, kill, cap, cape, gap,

All these bring us to a conclusion that there are definite rules used in phonology and they have to be followed when analyzing sounds. The first step is to know whether the sounds are different phonemes or not and we said that this is done by determining if they if they are contrasting or non-contrasting. If they are non-contrasting you go ahead and analyze the different allophones. When assessing the understanding of phonology you have to assess these and other few rules that will be described. (Justice, 2004)

Some vowels are nasalized while others are not. Nasalized vowel will be produced by redirecting the flow of air through the nasal cavity. The rule here is that all vowels become nasalized before nasal consonants.

Assessing the nasalization rule

Identify the words in the data below that would be pronounced by a nasalized vowel on the surface by a native English speaker?

  1. scene [sin]
  2. seat [sit]
  3. sun [s_n]
  4. sat [sæt]
  5. wreck [r_k]

Using the rule above, scene and sun should be underlined because the vowels in them come before nasal consonants. (Justice, 2004)

Vowels become lengthened before voiced consonants in English. This is yet another rule. Voiced consonants are those that cause vibration in the throat.

Assessing the lengthening rule

Which of the words in the data below would be pronounced with a lengthened vowel on the surface by a native English speaker?

  1. seat
  2. seed
  3. suck
  4. web
  5. tame

Seed and tame are the words produced with a lengthened vowel. We use these rule to identify sounds that are lengthened or not. (Justice, 2004)

The next rule in the category is that voiceless stops are aspirated stressed syllable initially. A puff off of air is produced with the sounds.

Assessing the aspiration rule

Based on the rule, identify the words that are pronounced with aspirated consonant on the surface

  1. seat[sit]
  2. seed [sid]
  3. account [ka_wnt]
  4. dead [d_d]
  5. big [b_]

Account and big are the words since they are pronounced with aspirated consonants. (Justice, 2004)


All these are rules and there respective assessments to help in understanding of phonology, phonemes, and allophones. Though not covered extensively, it presents the basic principals of phonology in depth. By following these rules, one will be able to analyze fully the concept of phonology and other linguistic aspects.

Reference list

Justice, P, W. (2004). Relevant Linguistics: An Introduction to the Structure and Use of English for Teachers. Second edition. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.


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