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Guide to phonology

Phonology is a branch of linguistics concerned with the sounds in languages.

What's a phoneme?

Phonemes are the individual sounds of a language. They are not the same as the letters of a language. Phonemes are represented in the linguistics community by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which accounts for all phonemes in all languages world-wide. Here are the IPA symbols for English consonants and vowels:

IPA examples
b but, web, rubble
t͡ʃ chat, teach, nature
d dot, idea, nod
f fan, left, enough, photo
ɡ get, bag
h ham
d͡ʒ joy, agile, age
k cat, tack
l left
m man, animal, him
n note, ant, pan
ŋ singer, ring
p pen, spin, top, apple
ɹ run, very
s set, list, ice
ʃ ash, sure, ration
t ton, butt
θ thin, nothing, moth
ð this, father, clothe
v voice, navel
w wet
j yes
z zoo, quiz, rose
ʒ vision, treasure
IPA examples
British General American Canadian Australian New Zealand
ɑː ɑ ɒ ɐː father, palm
æ, a æ ɛ bad, cat, ran
æɹ ɛɹ, æɹ ɛɹ æɹ ɛɹ carry
eɪ, ɛi æe day, pain
ɑː ɑɹ ɐː arm, bard
(ɛə) ɛː ɛɹ, eɹ ɛɹ hair, there
ɛ e bed
ɛɹ merry
i ease, see
ɪ ɪ, i ɘ sit, city, bit
ɪ i city, very, ready
ɪ̈ , ɨ ə ɘ roses
(ɪə) ɪː ɪɹ, iɹ ɪə, ɪː near, here, serious
aɪ, ɑi (ʌɪ) ɑe my, rice
ɒ, ɔ ɑ ɒ ɔ ɒ, ɔ not, wasp
əʊ əʉ ɐʉ no, go, hope
(ɔə) ɔː, oː , ɔɹ ɔɹ hoarse
ɔː, oː ɔ ɒ law, caught
ɔː, oː ɔɹ horse
ɔɪ, oi ɔɪ oe boy, noise
ʊ put, foot
(ʊə) ɵː ʊɹ ʊə ʉə tour, tourism
u ʉː lose, soon, through
(ʌʊ) æo house, now
ʌ ɐ run, enough, up
ɜː ɝ, əɹ ɝ ɜː ɵː fur, bird
ə ɘ about
ə ɚ ə ɘ winner, enter

Linguists and dictionary makers use forward slashes to represent the IPA pronunciation of a word: bat /bæt/. Word stress in IPA is indicated with a ˈ before the stressed syllable: linguistics /lɪŋˈɡwɪstɪks/

Other symbols

Other diacritic symbols in IPA that add extra information to phonemes, some of which can be rare and obscure. Some common ones are as follows:

Vowel lengthening

A longer vowel is represented by the ː symbol. The word "bead" has a longer vowel sound than "bit". In IPA they look like this:

bead /biːd/
bid /bɪd/

Some languages have a short and long version of the same vowel, for instance in English the /i/ in city /ˈsɪti/ is not lengthened, but we do not think of this as a different vowel from its lengthened form. Meanwhile, some languages may have a short and long version of the same vowel that make a meaningful difference. This is evident when two words that differ by only one phoneme have two different meanings. In Australian English, the words bid /bɪd/ and beard /bɪːd/ differ by only vowel lengthening. In this dialect of English we would say that /ɪ/ and /ɪː/ are two different phonemes (although they may not be different phonemes in American English). We would probably not say there is a meaningful difference between /i/ and /iː/ unless we found two different words that differed by only those phonemes. Instead we can think of /i/ and /iː/ as the same phoneme changing in different environments. These are called allophones, i.e. two allophones of the one phoneme. Other languages do make a meaningful (phonemic) difference between vowel lengths. They include: Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew, Finnish, Hungarian.

Nasal vowels

Nasal vowels are, as the name suggest, vowels with a nasaly sound. They are best illustrated by the vowel sounds in the words "huh?" and "uh-huh". Physiologically they are produced when air is allowed to escape through the nose as the vowel is being said. Nasalisation can apply to any vowel in the IPA chart, and are represented with a tilde: ã ẽ ĩ õ, etc.

Some languages may make a meaningful difference between nasal and non-nasal vowels. French is one such language, where the words beau /bo/ "beautiful" and bon /bõ/ "good" differ by only nasalisation. In English, nasal vowels occur as allophones before nasal consonants (that is, consonants /n/, /m/ and /ŋ/, which are also produced by allowing air to escape the nose).

Phonological rules

A phonological rule is the phenomenon in language whereby a phoneme changes its sound based on other phonemes around it. In other words, it is a formal way of expressing when and where a phoneme changes into one of its allophones. There are a few examples in English. My favourite is probably the "writer"/"rider" example. Note that the words "writer" and "rider" are identical in pronunciation, despite different spelling, meaning, and despite the fact that they come from two obviously different root words that do not sound the same -- "write" is pronounced /ɹaɪt/ and "ride" /ɹaɪd/. All the same but for a 't' and a 'd'.

The consonant in the middle of the words "writer" and "rider" appears to be neither a 't' or 'd', but a quick tap of the tongue behind the teeth. Linguists have a symbol for it /ɾ/. It's even called a tap. It turns out this is not a one off example. The tap also occurs between the words "litre" and "leader", and "cider" and "sighter". If a pattern like this can be established in a language, it is said to be a phonological rule. The rule here is: 't' and 'd' turn into a tap in between two vowels. The notation looks like this:

t → ɾ / V_V
d → ɾ / V_V

Where → means 'turns into', / means 'in the environment of' and V mean any vowel. We can package the two rules into one:

{t,d} → ɾ / V_V

When a word goes through a phonological rule such as this one we can give it a "narrow" pronunciation in square brackets:

writer /ˈɹaɪtə/ [ˈɹaɪɾə]
rider /ˈɹaɪdə/ [ˈɹaɪɾə]

The pronunciation between forward slashes can be thought of as the abstract pronunciation of the word; it is what we think the pronunciation is until we consciously analyse it. This "broad" pronunciation ties back to the meaning of the word (including its root word) and perhaps to the spelling of the word too, while the narrow pronunciation is what the mouth and tongue are actually doing.

Another phonological rule that we have made reference to is English's nasalisation rule: vowels turn into nasal vowels before nasal consonants; sing /sɪŋ/ [sɪ̃ŋ]

V → V[+nasal] / _N

Where N means nasal consonant, and square brackets [+nasal] to can be used to add a property to a class of phonemes.

Phonological rules have implications for how words will change pronunciation based on what affixes get attached. For example, imagine in your constructed language you make up a rule that o → u / _C (/o/ turns into [u] before any consonant). Now imagine you decided the way to form past-tense verbs is to add a suffix -t to the end of verbs, and the way to form present-tense is to add nothing to the verb. Your word for "want" is rito /ˈrito/. This phonological rule will affect the root word in the past-tense only:

Present-tense: rito /ˈrito/
Past-tense: rito + t /ˈritot/ [ˈritut]

There are a suit of other short-hand ways to represent different classes of phonemes in phonological rules. But it's important to know how phonemes can be broken down into classes first!


Most people have a fairly intuitive understanding of what should be classed as a consonant and what should be classed as a vowel. But a formal definition is that consonants are those phonemes that are articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract, whereas vowels have a much more open articulation and usually form the nucleus (center) of a syllable.

Consonants can be broken down into a matrix of 1) where in the mouth the tongue is placed to article the sound (place of articulation) and 2) how the sound is articulated from that place (manner of articulation). You can see this on the standard IPA chart.

Manners of articulation


Stops are probably the most common type of consonants. They are consonants where the air-flow through the mouth is momentarily completely blocked by either the tongue or lips, and then released. Examples in English are p, b, t, d, k, g. We can immediately contrast stops with consonants that have a continuous flow, like s z m n.

A stop is an example of a manner of articulation, which can be performed at various different places in the mouth (place of articulation). The only difference between /p/ and /t/ is that in /p/ the air flow is stopped at the lips, and /t/ the air flow is stopped with the tongue behind the teeth. There are other stops in the International Phonetic Alphabet that do not occur in English. For instance, Arabic has the stop /q/ which sounds like an English "k" except its place of articulation is way in the back of the throat, at the uvula. One example of a phonological rules using a stop comes from the Native Alaskan language of the Iñupiaq people: v → p / S_ (/v/ turns into a [p] after a stop).

Nasal consonants

Nasal consonants are produced by allowing air to escape through the nose. In English they are /n/, /m/ and /ŋ/. In phonological rules they may be represented as N.


Fricatives are produced by forcing air through a narrow channel in the vocal tract, to create turbulent airflow. In English these include /s/, /z/, /f/, /v/, as well as /ʃ/ "sh", /ʒ/ as in pleasure, /θ/ as in thin and /ð/ as in this. In phonological rules they may be represented as F.


Affricates are a combination of a stop and fricative. The best example in English is the "ch" sound, which is actually a combination of a /t/ and a /ʃ/, resulting in /tʃ/.

Flap or tap

Flaps or taps we have seen in the above example with /ɾ/ in rider. They are similar to stops but more brief.


Trills are produced with the tongue vibrating against some part of the mouth. A Spanish 'r' is a classic example of a trill, however they do not occur commonly in English.


Approximants in English include /w/, /j/ as in you, and /ɹ/ as in ready. They are defined as phonemes where the vocal tract narrow at some place of articulation, enough to not be a vowel but not enough to create turbulent airflow such as a fricative. In phonological rules they may be represented as A.


Laterals are various L-like consonants. In English the only lateral is /l/. In phonological rules they may be represented as L.

Places of articulation


Bilabial means "two lips". Bilabial consonants include /p/, /b/ and /m/. In phonological rules they may be represented as P.


Dental consonants are articulated with the tongue against the upper teeth, consonants such as /t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, and /l/ in some languages. However, English "dentals" are actually produced slightly further back at the alveolar ridge. For this reason linguists may or may not choose to use dental diacritics (t̪ d̪ n̪ s̪ z̪) to disambiguate pure dentals from alveolar consonants.

Dental consonants are sometimes further broken down into interdental, where the tongue is between upper and lower teeth: the "th" sounds in English are interdental, /θ/ as in thin and /ð/ as in this.


Alveolar consonants are articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge. In English /t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, /ɹ/ and /l/.


Palatal-alveolar articulated with the tongue slightly further behind where alveolar consonants are produced. These include /ʃ/ "sh", /ʒ/ as in pleasure, as well as affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/.


Palatal consonants are articulated with the tongue against the middle part of the roof of the mouth (hard palate). In English the only palatal consonant is /j/ as in you.


Velar consonants are articulated with the back part of the tongue against the back part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate). In English these are /k/, /g/ and /ŋ/ as in 'ng' sounds. In phonological rules they may be represented as K.


Voicing is best illustrated by the difference between phonemes /s/ and /z/. These two phonemes have the exact same manner and place of articulation. They are both fricatives in the alveolar position. So how do they differ? In producing these sounds you will notice your vocal chords vibrating during the articulation of the /z/. The term "voicing" refers to weather the vocal chords vibrate during the production of a phoneme. All phonemes have a voiced and voiceless counterpart, although usually not all of them maybe the present in a language. They may be represented in phonological rules as C[+voice] and C[-voice]. The following tables shows voiced/voiceless pairs in English:

Manner Place -voice +voice
Stop Bilabial p b
Stop Alveolar t d
Stop Velar k g
Fricative Labial f v
Fricative Alveolar s z
Fricative Palatal-alveolar ʃ ʒ
Affricate Palatal-alveolar

Created and designed in Sydney, Australia. © 2017.