Phonology studies the rules and regularities in the functional patterns of sounds in different languages. As such, it works on a more abstract level than phonetics, often leaving out the description of details that can be assumed as given for a particular language, like e.g. the aspiration that is usually present in initial voiceless plosives in most British and American accents of English.

Phonemes & Allophones

Perhaps the most important concept in phonology is the phoneme. Just like the morpheme in morphology, the phoneme is the minimal unit in phonology and its characteristic function is usually assumed to be that of distinguishing meanings. Related to this is the concept of minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of phonemes where exchanging one phoneme for another in otherwise graphematically identical words causes the difference in meaning. Classical examples for this are:


  1. Try to find some further examples of minimal pairs.
  2. Do the words thing and think form a minimal pair? Transcribe the words and then justify your solution based on this transcription.

Just like allomorphs are possible variants of individual morphemes, allophones are individual variants of phonemes whose forms depend on their immediate context. For instance, although word-initial voiceless plosives in the reference accents of English, Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GenAm), are normally aspirated – which a phonetic transcription would indicate through a raised ʰ diacritic symbol –, the same phonemes would not be aspirated if they were preceded by a voiceless fricative [s]. Thus, while pot would be transcribed [pʰɒt], we would render spot like this: [spɒt].

Phonemic Transcription

In contrast to the square brackets used for phonetic transcription, phonemic transcription – also known as broad transcription – uses forward slashes (//) for marking up sequences of phonemes, so that the distinction between the minimal pair examples from above could also be expressed this way, making it even clearer than in the graphemic representation.

Because phonemic transcription is intended to capture regularities in order to arrive at relatively abstract descriptive systems that capture common features in the speech of larger groups of people, it tends to ignore fine phonetic details that can be assumed as given. Therefore, a phonemic transcription of the word pot would silently ignore the aspiration after the initial voiceless plosive and transcribe it in this way: /pɒt/.

One very common mistake that people tend to make when producing either phonetic or phonemic transcriptions is that they enclose each word in square brackets or slashes, rather than the whole transcription sequence. Based on the conventions of written language that we are all unfortunately far too used to, one may also often find spaces or punctuation marks in such transcriptions. From a phonetic/phonological point of view, neither of these things makes sense, because the default for words on the level of sound is to be run together.

Graphemes & Phonemes

As we have already seen when we discussed vowels, as well as in the examples above, there is no one-to-one correspondence between vowel letters and phonemes in English. To get a better idea of the possible ratio between graphemes and phonemes, you can take a look at a relatively exhaustive list of correspondences on this page.

Syllables & Phonotactics

The notion of syllables intuitively seems to be a simple one, but you can see how tricky giving an exact definition may be by having a look at the syllables page of my phonetics course, which also introduces the notion of phonotactics, i.e. descriptions of the constellations of individual letters/sounds in particular languages.

Sources & Further Reading:

For further details and references, see my phonetics & phonology course.