What is phonology?
Phonology is the study of the sound system of languages. It is a huge area of language theory and it is difficult to do more on a general language course than have an outline knowledge of what it includes. In an exam, you may be asked to comment on a text that you are seeing for the first time in terms of various language descriptions, of which phonology may be one. At one extreme, phonology is concerned with anatomy and physiology – the organs of speech and how we learn to use them. At another extreme, phonology shades into socio-linguistics as we consider social attitudes to features of sound such as accent and intonation. And part of the subject is concerned with finding objective standard ways of recording speech, and representing this symbolically. For some kinds of study – perhaps a language investigation into the phonological development of young children or regional variations in accent, you will need to use phonetic transcription to be credible. But this is not necessary in all kinds of study – in an exam, you may be concerned with stylistic effects of sound in advertising or literature, such as assonance, rhyme or onomatopoeia – and you do not need to use special phonetic symbols to do this.
The physics and physiology of speech
Man is distinguished from the other primates by having the apparatus to make the sounds of speech. Of course most of us learn to speak without ever knowing much about these organs, save in a vague and general sense – so that we know how a cold or sore throat alters our own performance. Language scientists have a very detailed understanding of how the human body produces the sounds of speech. Leaving to one side the vast subject of how we choose particular utterances and identify the sounds we need, we can think rather simply of how we use our lungs to breathe out air, produce vibrations in the larynx and then use our tongue, teeth and lips to modify the sounds. The diagram below shows some of the more important speech organs.
This kind of diagram helps us to understand what we observe in others but is less useful in understanding our own speech. Scientists can now place small cameras into the mouths of experimental subjects, and observe some of the physical movements that accompany speech. But most of us move our vocal organs by reflexes or a sense of the sound we want to produce, and are not likely to benefit from watching movement in the vocal fold. The diagram is a simplified cross-section through the human head – which we could not see in reality in a living speaker, though a simulation might be instructive. But we do observe some external signs of speech sounds apart from what we hear. A few people have the ability to interpret most of a speaker’s utterances from lip-reading. But many more have a sense of when the lip-movement does or does not correspond to what we hear – we notice this when we watch a feature film with dubbed dialogue, or a TV broadcast where the sound is not synchronized with what we see.
The diagram can also prove useful in conjunction with descriptions of sounds – for example indicating where the airflow is constricted to produce fricatives, whether on the palate, the alveolar ridge, the teeth or the teeth and lips together. Speech therapists have a very detailed working knowledge of the physiology of human speech, and of exercises and remedies to overcome difficulties some of us encounter in speaking, where these have physical causes. An understanding of the anatomy is also useful to various kinds of expert who train people to use their voices in special or unusual ways. These would include singing teachers and voice coaches for actors, as well as the even more specialized coaches who train actors to produce the speech sounds of hitherto unfamiliar varieties of English or other languages. At a more basic level, my French teacher at school insisted that we (his pupils) could produce certain vowel sounds only...
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