Published December 19, 2014 | Version v1
Working paper Open

Phonology: Sound Structure

  • 1. Cornell University


Consider the “words” shown in (1): 
 (1)       I                          II                                           II  

        a. *xoda                  poda                                     poda[z] (cf. coda, codas)    

            [x] as in       German ch.  

        b. *ngatus               matus                                   matus[ɪz] (cf. mattress, mattresses)    


            *rudih                  hurid                                     hurid[z] (cf. herd, herds)  

        c. *bnick                  blick                                     blick[s] (cf. block, blocks) 

Fluent speakers of English would agree that none of these are actual words of English, yet most speakers would also agree that those in column I are not possible words (we use an * to indicate an impossible or “ungrammatical” form); while those in column II are.

In addition, most speakers would agree that the plurals of the would-be words in column II would be pronounced as indicated in column III. How do we know this? Our knowledge of the sound patterns of our native language(s) comes not through memorizing a list of words, but rather by internalizing information about the allowed and disallowed sound patterns of that language.

As fluent speakers of English, we know which sounds occur in our language and which don't. For example, in (1a), the [x] sound of German (written ch in borrowings from German, as in the German pronunciation of Bach) just doesn't occur in English. In addition, some occurring sounds of English are nevertheless restricted in the position where they occur within the word. As shown in (1b), the sound represented by the spelling sequence ng [ŋ] cannot occur at the beginning of a word (though it occurs in the middle (singer) or end (sing)), while h cannot occur at the end of a word (but it occurs at the beginning (hot) or middle (ahead)). We also know which sounds can be combined into a sequence. Thus in (1c), bl is an allowable sequence at the beginning of a word (blue), while bn is not.

Finally, we also know how sound patterns alternate. For example, in the regular plural formation in English, what is written as s or es is pronounced [s], [z], or [ɪz] depending on certain properties of the last sound of the word. As native speakers, without thinking we produce the expected forms (block[s], herd[z], mattress[ɪz]). It is this knowledge about sound structure—which sounds occur, what their distribution is, how they can be combined, and how they might be realized differently in different positions in a word or phrase—that constitutes the study of phonology.  

Central to research in phonology is documenting and characterizing the full range of attested sound structures and patterns across the languages of the world.1 In this chapter, we explore some of the central generalizations about sounds, using theories and tools that allow us to insightfully analyze these patterns.

We will focus on three areas: sound inventories and contrasts (Section 2), structure above the level of the sound unit or segment, that is prosodic organization (Section 3), and structure internal to the segment (Section 4). The general approach followed here is generative phonology (see Chomsky and Halle 1968, also Kenstowicz and Kisseberth 1979) where the goal is to develop a theory that accurately models a speaker's knowledge of his or her language. In Section 5, we consider phonology in a broader context, considering alternative views and identifying emerging trends. 


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