So, Phonetics is the study of speech sounds. Yes, there are people out there who have dedicated their entire lives to gallantly studying all the many sounds (there are more than you’d think) that the human mouth is capable of producing.
If you choose to study Phonetics at university, which I did, briefly, you’ll probably find yourself on a Tuesday morning staring deeply into the mouth of a very old, very academic man, with at least some of his own teeth, as he shows you what shape the tongue makes in order to ‘articulate’ each sound. So, the ‘ooo’ and the ‘ahh’ and the ‘eee’. And the plosives, the ‘pah’ and ‘tah’ and ‘dah’. And let’s not forget the fricatives, the ‘sss’ and the ‘fff’ and the ‘zzz’.
I have to say, it was one of the least pleasant experiences of my entire academic career. As a general rule, I don’t like spit.
But Phonology, now here’s something more interesting and generally spit free. Phonologists look at how different languages select and organise the speech sounds available in order to allow speakers of those tongues to distinguish between words. So, how English employs the ‘tah’, ‘cah’ and ‘mmm’ sounds so that speakers can distinguish between the words ‘top’, ‘cop’ and ‘mop’.
No one language makes use of all the sounds the mouth can create. The International Phonetic Alphabet, a notation system for representing each speech sound in writing (because the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet simply aren’t enough), has 107 symbols to represent the main sounds. But then there are diacritics and other symbols that can be used if you want to be more precise, meaning there are actually many more speech sounds than even the basic IPA notates.
However, the English language makes use of far fewer. But how many exactly? Well, answering that question reveals what is for me the most interesting element of Phonology. Because if you ask “how many speech sounds are used in the English language”, well, it depends. Do you mean how many sounds do we use, or how many do we – as native English speakers – hear? Because the answer is different.
At least one text book I looked in says there are 44 ‘phonemes’ in English. And, the Collins English dictionary defines the term ‘phoneme’ as a “speech sound in any given language that serves to distinguish one word from another”. So, the ‘t’, ‘c’ and ‘m’ sounds mentioned above, which distinguish the words ‘top’, ‘cop’ and ‘mop’, would all be phonemes. So, let’s assume there are about 44 phonemes in English (I say “about” to allow for any academic debate on this issue to be accounted for).
But then, here’s the thing. One phoneme in English is ‘l’, which is fair enough. It’s the sound that distinguishes ‘lip’ from ‘dip’, and ‘pill’ from ‘pin’, that’s straight forward. Except say those words to yourself, but listen carefully and focus on what your tongue is doing. Say ‘lip’ and then ‘pill’. For many English speakers, the ‘l’ sound in those two words is quite different, and the tongue is behaving in a different way.
They are, in fact, different sounds. However, the first ‘l’ – often called the ‘clear l’ by Phonology fanatics – only ever appears at the start of a word, and the latter – often called the ominous sounding ‘dark l’ – only ever appears in the middle or at the end of words (actually, the rule varies slightly depending on accent, but they never appear in the same place within each variant of English). So our brains, as native English speakers, don’t distinguish between them, because those two sounds are never going to be used to distinguish between two words. We are happy to think of them both as the phoneme ‘l’.
The ‘clear l’ and the ‘dark l’ are called allophones. They are allophones which belong to the phoneme ‘l’. If you want to be allophonically precise (which is a term I just made up, but something you might want to aim for anyway), you’d probably put a little squiggle in the middle of the ‘l’ symbol (like in the picture above) if you wanted to show the dark variation, and then put that inside square brackets to show you’re talking about an allophone and not a phoneme. Many other phonemes have allophonic variations too.
Of course, as is often wonderfully the case with spoken language, as native speakers this distinction really doesn’t matter. And even when different accents use different allophones in different places, although we might notice a slight difference in sound, because those allophones represent the same phoneme there’s never any confusion. So much so, when you point out the allophonic differences to non-Linguists, most native speakers are amazed they exist.
So there you have it. Phonology. No spit, and amazing.