In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interface Between Phonology and Phonetics

  • Introduction
  • Introductions to the Interface
  • Resources
  • Phonetics within a Broader Phonology
  • Collections Addressing the Interface
  • Laboratory Phonology

Linguistics Interface Between Phonology and Phonetics
Abigail Cohn, Marie K. Huffman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0168


The notion of an interface presupposes the existence of two discrete entities. The study of sound structure is commonly divided into phonology and phonetics. An understanding of the interface between them is, thus, dependent on how we delineate the two areas. Most theorizing about the relationship between phonology and phonetics acknowledges that there are both conceptual and physical aspects of sounds of human language. Phonology is often defined as the cognitive aspects of sound structures and sound patterns, while phonetics is understood to be the physical implementation of these structures and patterns. Under this view, phonology is what the speaker/hearer knows about the sound patterns of his/her language and, thus, is noncontroversially part of the linguistic grammar. Phonetics, on the other hand, is what actually happens during the production and perception of these cognitive patterns. Phonology and phonetics interact in multiple ways. Phonological structure is realized through phonetic mechanisms, generally referred to as phonetic implementation, though researchers disagree about whether implementation should be viewed as a procedural, directional relationship. However, it is also clearly true that phonetic considerations shape observed phonological patterns. Much debate centers on whether this influence is direct and whether explanation of cross-linguistic phonological regularities resides within the phonetics. Three types of questions are often included in discussions of “the phonology-phonetics interface.” First, discussions about the interface are sometimes couched in terms of investigating the mechanisms that relate these two domains of knowledge of language. This is the most specific meaning of the relationship between phonology and phonetics. This, however, presupposes an answer to a second question: What is the division of labor between phonology and phonetics? This is a complex and controversial issue and both theoretical and empirical considerations come into play. Often implicitly included is a third question: What is the relationship between the academic fields of phonology and phonetics? In a strict sense, only the first question is about the interface between aspects of knowledge of sounds; however, because of the necessary precedence of the second question and common inclusion of the third in discussions about the interface, we discuss all three in this article. We emphasize work that directly attends to the interface (in any of these senses). A large body of empirical and specifically phonetic work that informs these issues could not be covered here, but many of these works are, in fact, referenced by works discussed here.

Introductions to the Interface

In recent years a number of excellent introductory articles have appeared on many aspects of the relationship between phonology and phonetics. To gain an overview of this relationship and to understand the range of views attributed to the interface, these articles serve as an excellent point of departure. These papers have appeared primarily in handbooks and edited volumes. Earlier papers presuppose a clear division of labor between phonology and phonetics (influenced, at least in part, by generative phonology and a strictly modular view of the grammar), striving to understand the mechanisms relating the two and encouraging researchers to use more synthesizing approaches. Keating 1988 aims to educate the reader on how integration of phonetic and phonological methodologies offers better insights into each field. More recent papers grapple with the growing evidence supporting the generally accepted conclusion that phonology and phonetics are not as distinct as previously assumed. This brings to the fore the question of the division of labor as well as the mechanisms involved in that division. Scobbie 2007 and Reiss 2007 offer two quite different views of the division and mechanisms. In line with the traditional generative phonology view, Reiss 2007 argues for a sharp contrast, while Scobbie 2007 emphasizes the lack of a sharp boundary, providing a particularly nuanced discussion in highlighting both empirical and theory-internal dimensions of the debate. Cohn 2007 attempts to clarify some of the different ways phonology and phonetics interact. Kingston 2007 revisits some of the core issues of the relationship as does Hamann 2011 (which is cited under Phonological and Phonetic Representations). Ohala 2010 and Ladd 2011 provide historical framing.

  • Cohn, Abigail C. 2007. Phonetics in phonology and phonology in phonetics. Working Papers of the Cornell Phonetics Laboratory 16:1–31.

    Discusses two distinct ways phonology and phonetics interact. Discusses examples of assimilation and coarticulation at the core of debates over the “boundary” between phonology and phonetics, arguing that similar effects need not be attributed to identical grammatical machinery. Argues that the distinction between categorical phonology and gradient phonetics is empirically motivated.

  • Keating, Patricia A. 1988. The phonology-phonetics interface. In The Cambridge linguistic survey. Vol. 1, Linguistic theory: Foundations. Edited by Frederick J. Newmeyer, 281–302. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A clear introduction oriented more toward the phonologist, focusing on features, phonetic implementation, and the phonetic basis of phonological units and processes. Some specific phonological theories referenced here have changed since this article was written but the issues raised about features and the relationship between grammatical modules are still key research questions.

  • Kingston, John. 2007. The phonetics-phonology interface. In The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Edited by Paul de Lacy, 401–434. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486371.018

    Discusses three core ways phonetics relates to phonology: defining distinctive features (given the most attention), explaining phonological patterns, and implementing phonological representations. Argues that the complexity of phonetics motivates phonological abstractions, and that the way phonetic substance affects phonological representations precludes a strict boundary between them.

  • Ladd, D. Robert. 2011. Phonetics in phonology. In Handbook of phonological theory. 2d ed. Edited by John Goldsmith, Jason Riggle, and Alan Yu, 348–373. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444343069

    Explores the dual role of speech sounds as physical events and elements in a symbolic system. Taking in part a historical perspective on the relationship between phonetics and phonology, the author critiques the widely held assumptions in phonology of a systematic phonetics involving a “segmental ideal” and a “universal categorization assumption” (p. 349).

  • Ohala, John J. 2010. The relation between phonetics and phonology. In The handbook of phonetic sciences. 2d ed. Edited by William J. Hardcastle and John Laver, 653–677. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317251

    Provides a historical perspective and then identifies key questions that must be considered about the relationship between phonology and phonetics. It not only addresses phonetics and phonology, but also brings language change into the discussion. Excellent historical review and clear framing of the questions critical to the field.

  • Reiss, Charles. 2007. Modularity in the “sound” domain: Implications for the purview of universal grammar. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces. Edited by Gillian Ramchand and Charles Reiss, 53–78. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199247455.001.0001

    In line with earlier generative views, presents a strictly modular view of the interface where only phonology is part of “universal grammar,” defining the abstract sound properties of the set of logically computable languages. The “substance” of sound structure falls to the phonetics, historical change, and other “extragrammatical” factors.

  • Scobbie, James M. 2007. Interface and overlap in phonetics and phonology. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces. Edited by Gillian Ramchand and Charles Reiss, 17–52. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199247455.001.0001

    Employing an analogy with tidal zones, Scobbie argues forcefully that phonetics and phonology are clearly distinct, yet there are true intermediate cases that do not belong to either domain. Arguing for an empirical approach that assumes little a priori, the author favors detailed representations like those proposed within exemplar theory.

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