4 Phonology

Learning Outcomes

After studying this chapter, you should be able to discuss:

  • the difference between phonology and phonetics
  • the definition of a phoneme
  • the definition of an allophone
  • the process of phonological analysis

Phonology vs. Phonetics

People often get confused when trying to determine the difference between phonetics and phonology. While phonetics is about describing actual sounds (their physical properties: where you put your tongue and lips to make a sound, how the air flows when you make a certain sound, etc.), phonology is about describing the abstract sound system in your mind—specifically, how different sounds are organized into categories in your mind.

This probably sounds very abstract. To get an idea what this means, let’s think about how sounds can be “different” and how different sounds might need to be organized together.

Watch this clip:

In this video clip, there is a certain word that gets said a lot. Listen to it carefully. Do you think the people are saying the same thing, or different things?

In fact, every time different people say that word (and even sometimes when the same person says it more than once), you can notice subtle differences in the way it’s pronounced. For example, I noticed that the last person used a slightly different vowel than the others did: most of them pronounced it with the vowel [ɑ], but the last guy used the vowel [ɔ], as if he were saying “jawbs”. Nevertheless, you might feel like they’re still saying the “same word.”

This is a conundrum: these people are not making the exact same sound, so how does our brain decide that they’re saying the same word? If one person says jobs and another says pants, we will hear different sounds and recognize that they’re different words. But when one person says jobs in one way and another person says jobs another way, we somehow decide that they’re saying the same word, even though they are not making the same sounds. How do we do that? How do we decide when two sounds are different enough to really be “different sounds,” vs. when two different sounds are still “the same sound”?

Consider the sound [m] (e.g., the sound at the beginning of moon). Using the concepts from the Phonetics module, how would you describe this sound phonetically? What is the place of articulation (i.e., what part of your mouth do you use to make this sound)? Think about the answer to this before you read further.

You should have figured out that [m] is a bilabial sound: you make the sound by touching your bottom lip and your upper lip together.

Now think about the words comfort, nymph, and symphony. Try pronouncing these words on your own. Pay close attention to what your mouth is doing. Are you pronouncing the m in these words as a bilabial [m]?

If you pay close attention, you will notice that the “m” in words like symphony, comfort, or nymph is not a bilabial [m]. It’s a labiodental (labio=lips, dental=teeth) sound: it’s produced by touching the bottom lip to the upper teeth (in IPA, it’s written as [ɱ]). In other words, it’s physically a different sound than [m]. Nevertheless, anyone who speaks English will probably think it’s “the same” as [m]—most people probably never even notice the difference without doing an exercise like this one.

These two examples are both illustrating the same problem: language speakers somehow take different sounds and organize them into groups.

Technically, every sound ever made is different. If you say the same word ten times, the sound that people around you hear will never be exactly the same twice. Maybe you’re sometimes louder and sometimes quieter. Maybe one time you say the word there’s a gust of wind or a car passing in the background. There’s always some random variation in sounds.

To understand language, we need to be able to ignore some small differences. If I tried to understand language by seeing if someone’s pronunciation exactly matches what I’ve heard before, I would never understand anything. If, every time a person says jobs, my brain thinks “Well, that is not exactly the same as the way I pronounce jobs, so I don’t recognize it as the word jobs,”  then I won’t understand what other people are saying. I need to be able to recognize that someone is pronouncing something a bit differently, but it’s still the same word. But I can’t ignore too many differences: if someone says pants and I think they are saying jobs, I won’t understand them well either. How does our brain decide which differences are small enough to ignore, and which differences are real differences?

We can visualize the problem as follows. Below are pictures of several sounds (i.e., pictures of the waveforms created when someone records themselves saying those sounds).

image of phonology sounds

Physically speaking, these are all different sounds: none of them are exactly the same. However, as a language speaker, I have to organize them into some categories—maybe some are [k] sounds, some are [t] sounds, some are [g] sounds, etc. Thus, there must be something in my mind that groups these sounds, to decide which ones are “the same” and which ones are “different”, as shown below.

Phonology sounds grouped

What is Phonology

Until now, we’ve been concentrating on phonetics: how sounds are made and what they sound like.  We’re now starting to think about phonology, which looks at how sounds are organized within the mental grammar of each language: which phonetic differences are meaningful, which are predictable, which ones are possible, and which ones are impossible within each language.


The core principle in phonology is the idea of contrast. Say we have two sounds that are different from each other.  If the difference between those two sounds leads to a difference in meaning in a given language, then we say that those two sounds contrast in that language.

So for example, the difference between fan and van is a phonetic difference in voicing. That phonetic difference leads to a substantial difference in meaning in English, so we say that /f/ and /v/ are contrastive in English. And if two sounds are contrastive in a given language, then those two sounds are considered two different phonemes in that language.

What is a phoneme? A phoneme is something that exists in your mind.  It’s a mental category, into which your mind groups sounds that are phonetically similar and gives them all the same label. That mental category contains memories of every time you’ve heard a given sound and labelled it as a member of that category. You could think of a phoneme like a shopping bag in your mind.  Every time you hear the segment [f], your mental grammar categorizes it by putting it in bag labelled /f/. /v/ contrasts with /f/ — it’s a different phoneme, so every time you hear that [v], your mind puts it in a different bag, one labelled /v/.

If we look inside that shopping bag, inside the mental category, we might find some phonetic variation. But if the variation is not meaningful, not contrastive, our mental grammar does not treat those different segments as different phonemes.

In English, we have a phonemic category for /l/, so whenever we hear the segment [l] (luck, love, land), we store it in our memory as that phoneme. But voiceless [l̥] (please, plow) is not contrastive: it doesn’t change the meaning of a word, so when we hear voiceless [l̥] we also put it in the same category in our mind. And when we hear a syllabic [l̩] (athlete, scramble), that’s not contrastive either, so we put that in the same category. All of those [l]s are a little different from each other, phonetically, but those phonetic differences are not contrastive because they don’t lead to a change in meaning, so all of those [l]s are members of a single phoneme category in English.

Our question now is, how can we tell if two phonetically different sounds are phonemically contrastive? What evidence would we need? Remember that mental grammar is in the mind — we can’t observe it directly. So what evidence would we want to observe in the language that will allow us to draw conclusions about the mental grammar?

If we observe that a difference between two sounds — a phonetic difference — also leads to a difference in meaning, then we can conclude that the phonetic difference is also a phonemic difference in that language. So our question really is, how do we find differences in meaning?

What we do is look for a minimal pair. We want to find two words that are identical in every way except for the two segments that we’re considering. So the two words are minimally different: the only phonetic difference between them is the difference that we’re interested in. If we can find such a pair, where the minimal phonetic difference leads to a difference in meaning, it’s contrastive, then we can conclude that the phonetic difference between them is a phonemic difference.

We’ve already seen one example of a minimal pair:  fan and van are identical in every way except for the first segment. The phonetic difference between [f] and [v] is contrastive; it changes the meaning of the word, so we conclude that /f/ and /v/ are two different phonemes. Can you think of other minimal pairs that give evidence for the phonemic contrast between /f/ and /v/?

Here are some more minimal pairs that you might think of for /f/ and /v/: vine and fine, veal and feel. Minimal pairs don’t have to have the segments that we’re considering at the beginning of the word.  Here are some pairs that contrast at the end of the word: have and half, serve and surf. Or the contrast can occur in the middle of the word, like in reviews and refuse. What’s important is that the two words are minimally different: they are the same in all their segments except for the two that we’re considering. And it’s also important to notice that the minimal difference is in the IPA transcription of the word, not in its spelling.

Recap: Check Your Understanding

Here’s a quick recap. Phonology is the study of how we categorize sounds in our minds. Remember that the smallest unit of sound is a segment (or phone). If segments sound different, they are phonetically different. However, those sound differences don’t always affect meaning. Phonemically contrastive segments are segments that are phonetically different AND that change the meaning of a word. We can test for phonemic contrast by looking at minimal pairs–when just one sound of two words is different (might vs sight, for example).


So we’ve got plenty of evidence from all these minimal pairs in English that the phonetic difference between /f/ and /v/ leads to a meaning difference in English, so we can conclude that, in English, /f/ and /v/ are two different phonemes. Any variants that are not contrastive, that don’t lead to a meaning change, are members of that same phoneme category and are called allophones. In other words, allophones are different pronunciations of a phoneme. Therefore, every phoneme must have at least one allophone.

Some allophones appear in free variation, which means that it’s pretty much random which variant appears in any environment. Take our phoneme /l/, as in the words lucky and lunch. Most of the time you pronounce these words with a plain old ordinary voiced alveolar lateral approximant. But sometimes you might be speaking extra clearly — maybe you’re trying to talk to a relative who’s hard of hearing, or maybe you’re concentrating on teaching some speech sounds to a language learner.  So instead of making the /l/ sound at the alveolar ridge, you stick your tongue right out between your teeth and say lucky or lunch. Now you’re making a dental [l̪], not an alveolar [l], but it’s still a member of the phoneme category for /l/ — it doesn’t change the meaning of the word, so this phonetic difference is not contrastive.  It’s just free variation within the category.

But most allophones are entirely predictable. Linguists say that allophonic variation is phonetically conditioned because it depends on what other sounds are nearby within the word; different allophones show up in different environments.  Let’s look at a few words.  If we look at this set of words: plow, clap, clear, play, we can see that whenever /l/ follows a [p] or [k], it is devoiced. But now look at this other set of words (blue, gleam, leaf, fall, silly), when /l/ appears in any other environment, like following a voiced stop, or at the beginning of a word, at the end of a word, or in the middle of a word, it’s the ordinary [l]. If we looked at a whole lot more words and recorded a lot of English speakers, we’d find that whenever /l/ is in a consonant cluster following a voiceless aspirated stop, it also becomes voiceless, but when /l/ is in other environments, it stays voiced.  We never find voiceless [l̥] in other environments, and we almost never find voiced [l] following a voiceless stop.  That pattern is called complementary distribution. When we see complementary distribution, that’s good evidence that the two segments we’re considering are allophones of one phoneme.

So let’s sum up.  If we have two phonetic segments that are related but different from each other, and we find some minimal pairs to show that this phonetic difference is contrastive, then we conclude that those two segments are two different phonemes.

And if we have two phonetic segments that are related but different, and they’re not contrastive, then we look to see what the distribution of these segments is, that is, what environments we see them in.  If they’re not contrastive and they’re in complementary distribution, then we conclude that they’re allophones of the same phoneme.

The following video gives a really great description of the difference between a phoneme and an allophone.


Phonological Analysis

Figuring out how the mind organizes different sounds into categories is what phonology is all about. The study of phonology gives us some useful techniques to figure out a solution to this problem. In a phonological analysis, we are determining whether specific sounds in a particular language are different phonemes or whether they are allophones of the same phoneme.

To see how it works, let’s do a phonological analysis of the sounds of a language you probably don’t know: Maasai (a language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania).

Maasai Activity Instructions

Below is a set of words from Maasai, written phonetically. You don’t need to know the language to do this analysis; these words are just some data for us to work with. In fact, you don’t really even need to know how the words sound because we are looking for patterns in how the sounds are arranged.

[sarkin] intermarriage taboo
[eŋgila] little garment
[imbok] you clean ceremonially
[ijjook] we
[olkila] garment
[imbaɣiβak] you are restless
[olpurkel] dry steppes
[koɣoo] grandmother
[eŋgoo] advise him
[ilarak] murderers
[keβer] heaven
[ilkeek] trees
[poɣira] all
[eŋgamaniɣi] name of age-set
[eŋoɣi] sin
[olkiɣuei] thorn
[kaɣe] but
[olɗuɣa] shop

For this analysis, I want to concentrate first on the velar sounds. If you look at the above word list, you can see that Maasai has three velar consonants: [k] (voiceless velar stop, i.e. quite), [g] (voiced velar stop, i.e. go), and [ɣ] (voiced velar fricative).

[ɣ]  is a variant of /g/ that we don’t hear in modern English. The difference is that the back of the throat does not completely close when pronouncing [ɣ]. While we do not see this sound in English often, it is common in Spanish.

This short video demonstrates the slight difference between [g] and [ɣ] in Spanish.

Based on what you learned in the Phonetics module, you should be able to pronounce any of these sounds to see what they sound like, even if you don’t know this language. Need help?

Step 1: Can you find one or more minimal pairs?

In general, we look at a list of words that contain the sounds. Our first step is to look to see if there are any minimal pairs. Remember, a minimal pair is two words that have the exact same sounds–except for one. This could be the first sound (van and fan), a middle sound (tin and tan), or an end sound (lead and leaf). If we see a minimal pair, we know that the sounds are distinct phonemes because they change the meaning of the word.

In this case, there are no minimal pairs.

Step 2: Describe the Environment of the Allophones

If we find that there are no minimal pairs, we know that the sounds are allophones of the same phoneme. In this case, we want to try to determine the phonological rule that the allophones follow. In other words, we want to see when one sound is used over another. It is helpful to write out the letters immediately preceding and following each of the sounds to help determine a pattern.

List the environments in which each sound appears. So, for example, the first word is [sarkin]. I see that this word includes a [k], I also see that there’s an [r] before the [k], and an [i] after the [k]. So when I list all the environments where [k] appears, I can record this as “r_i” (indicating that I found a “k”, and it’s between an “r” and an “i”. When I want to list the environments where [g] appears, the first one I will see is the word [eŋgila], so for the environments where [g] appears I can write down “ŋ_i” (indicating that I found a “g”, and it was in between a “ŋ” and a “i”).

Go through the whole list, and find all the environments where [k] appears, find all the environments where [g] appears, and all the environments where [ɣ] appears. It’s useful to list these in columns rather than rows (i.e., make one vertical column listing all the environments where [k] appears, make another vertical column listing all the environments where [g] appears, etc.). Write your answers down.

Here are the environments I found for each sound. The ones you found should look similar to this. (I used “#” to indicate the beginning or end of a word.)

k g ɣ
r_i ŋ_i a_i
o_# ŋ_o o_o
o_# o_i
l_i i_i
a_# i_i
r_e o_i
#_o i_u
a_# a_e
#_e u_a

Now, see if you can make any generalizations. For example, look at the environments where [ɣ] occurs. Is there anything you can say about these environments? Does [ɣ] only occur in a particular situation? Is there any situation where [ɣ] never occurs? What pattern do you see? What is in common across all the environments where [ɣ] occurs?

Try the same thing for [g]. Is there any pattern?

And finally, for [k]. Is there any pattern, or it is pretty random/unsystematic?

You should have been able to notice the following generalizations:

  • [ɣ] only ever occurs in between two vowels. It does not occur in any other situations.
  • [g] only ever occurs after a nasal, [ŋ]. It does not occur in any other situation.
  • [k] occurs anywhere else. It never occurs in the situation where [ɣ] occurs (between two vowels), and it never occurs in the situation where [g] occurs (after [ŋ]). But it can occur in any other situation.

This is a special kind of situation in phonology called complementary distribution: we have several sounds that never occur in the same situation. This gives us reason to suspect that they might not be different sounds; they might be different versions of the same sound.

Step 3: Write the Phonological Rule

One way to express these relationships is to assume that a given sound changes its pronunciation when it’s put into a certain context. For example, going back to our Massai example, [k] is normally pronounced [k] in this language. But if you put it after a nasal, it turns into [g]. Or if you put it in between two vowels, it turns into [ɣ]. These patterns are called phonological rules: descriptions of how sounds change as a result of their context. A phonological rule can be expressed in plain English, like I just did above: you say what sound changes into what other sound, in what context. There is also a formal notation for phonological rules, which looks like this:

k -> g / ŋ_

In a phonological rule notation like this, “->” means “changes into” or “is pronounced as”, and “/” means “in the context of…” or “in the context where…” or even just “when”. So the above rule could be read out loud as “k is pronounced as g when it appears after ŋ”

Another way to express phonological rules formally is like this:

ŋk -> ŋg

This can be read out loud as “ŋk is pronounced as ŋg”.

Just now I have shown you two different ways to formally represent the relationship between [k] and [g].

A phonological rule usually looks like something like this:

A->B / X_Y

  • A is the sound affected by the rule.
  • -> “becomes” or “is changed to”
  • B is the sound property that rule changes.
  • / is “the environment of”
  • X is what comes before the sound
  • Y is what comes after the sound

Check your Understanding


Please watch the following video that explains how to perform a Phonological Analysis. This video gives very specific steps and examples that will help you!


Exercise: Phonological Analysis

Consider the following Finnish words:

1. [kudot] “failures” 5. [madon] “of a worm”
2. [kate] “cover” 6. [maton] “of a rug”
3. [katot] “roots” 7. [ratas] “wheel”
4. [kade] “envious” 8. [radon] “of a track”

Given these words, do the voiceless alveolar stops [t] and [d] represent different phonemes, or are they allophones of the same phoneme?

Remember, the first step is to determine if there are any minimal pairs. Since 2 and 4 and 5 and 6 are minimal pairs, we can determine that [t] and [d] in Finnish are distinct phonemes /t/ and /d/, not allophones.


Phonological analysis is like solving a puzzle. It allows us to better understand how language works, even if we don’t know the language! While the terms may seem complicated, I hope you feel like you have at least a basic understanding of phonology. If you’re still feeling a little lost, this short video overview might help clarify the important points in this chapter.

One thing becomes clear in this chapter–the immense amount of effort it takes to learn a new language. In the United States, where so many different regional dialects exist, think about how those many different dialects might make learning English in the United States even more difficult.


This chapter is licensed CC-BY-SA.

Content in this chapter adapted from the following:

Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson licensed CC BY SA 4.0.

Doing Basic Phonological Analysis by Stephen Politzer-Ahles licensed CC-BY-4.0.


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More than Words Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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