In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Phonology

  • Introduction
  • Derivation and Relatedness Between Forms
  • Contrastiveness
  • Representation
  • Markedness and Universals
  • Innateness and Substance
  • Diachronic Phonology
  • Computational Phonology
  • Descriptions of Individual Languages and Families

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Linguistics Phonology
Paul de Lacy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0033


The term “phonology” has several meanings. It is often used to refer to generalizations about sounds and sound combinations (often called sound patterns) in and across languages. In contrast, within generative grammar “phonology” refers to a particular cognitive module. Many generative theories propose that the module takes inputs, consisting of strings of symbols (called phonological symbols, segments, phonemes, underlying forms, or the input, depending on the theory). The symbols may be accompanied by information about morphology, syntax, and perhaps even some aspects of meaning. The module produces an output representation, which serves as the input to the phonetic modules; these modules ultimately provoke muscle movements that can result in speech sounds. A common point of confusion is the belief that the phonological module manipulates speech sounds; in fact the phonology manipulates representations that are sent to the phonetic module, which then converts them into phonetic representations that are then implemented as muscle movements that, given the right factors, can produce audible sound. The two meanings of “phonology” are not in opposition. Phonology (sound patterns) makes up some of the data used in theorizing about the phonology (the cognitive module). There are large variations in sound patterns across languages. For example, Hawai’ian has nine contrastive consonants, whereas Ubykh has eighty-six. However, there are commonalities too, though many are disputed. For example, every language has either an alveolar voiceless stop of some kind or a glottal stop or both. Similarly, no language lacks words that start with a consonant. There are also large variations in phonological modules among humans; however, a great deal of research contends that all phonological modules share common properties, at least in their underlying structures. Although the outputs of languages are diverse, much work has argued that the representations and processes used to generate phonological outputs are very similar—perhaps identical—in all phonological modules, with only certain aspects of the phonological module (e.g., rules, constraint ranking) differing between modules.

Foundational Works

Pāṇini’s grammar of Classical Sanskrit includes the earliest comprehensive description of a phonological system (see Pāṇini 1897 for a translation). In the modern era, Saussure 2011 (originally published in 1916) was instrumental in directing research toward the synchronic study of phonology and away from diachronic change (see Diachronic Phonology). Trubetzkoy 1969 (originally published in 1939) provides a comprehensive framework for understanding synchronic phonologies as logical systems. Until the middle of the 20th century, phonological research focused on taxonomy and description. Chomsky and Halle 1968 changed the focus of research to the cognitive processes that generate and perceive speech sounds: the phonological module and its interfaces became the object of study for many researchers, and phonologies came to be understood as the outcome of those processes. There are many extant theories of phonology (see Theories). Anderson 1985 provides a history of theoretical developments in the 20th century up until the early 1980s.

  • Anderson, Stephen R. 1985. Phonology in the twentieth century: Theories of rules and theories of representations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A history of theoretical developments in phonology up until the early 1980s.

  • Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle. 1968. The sound pattern of English. Studies in Language. New York: Harper and Row.

    Commonly referred to as SPE, this book is the founding text in generative phonology. It established the study of phonology as part of the cognitive sciences.

  • Pāṇini. 1897. The Ashtadhyayi. Book 6. Translated by Srisa Chandra Vasu. Benares, India: Sindhu Charan Bose.

    A translation of Pāṇini’s Ashtadhyayi (अष्टाध्यायी), the central part of his grammar. The earliest complete grammar of any language (in this case, Classical Sanskrit).

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 2011. Course in general linguistics. Rev. ed. Edited by Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1916. Marks the beginning of the modern study of synchronic phonological systems. Introduced important notions, such as arbitrariness and contrast.

  • Trubetzkoy, N. S. 1969. Principles of phonology. Translated by Christine A. M. Baltaxe. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Originally published in 1939. One of the earliest and most comprehensive theories of sound patterns. Part of the Prague school (see The Prague School). Introduced significant concepts, such as the phoneme, contrastiveness, and the distinction between phonetics and phonology.

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