Why Study Phonology?

Aims

Sounds change depending on the certain environment they are produced in. Phonology aims to analyse these sounds and discover why this happens. This involves discovering how what happens in the brain is transformed and produced as the physical sound. This allows phonologists to discover the different rules there are for combining different sounds. Further afield phonologists’ aim to use the information they find from this research to find the numerous rules for various different languages.


Applications

There is a variety of ways of applying phonology.

  • You can look at how sound systems have changed over periods of time. This aspect of phonology can be called historical or diachronic phonology. (For more see History of Phonology)
  • You can examine specific languages to discover the rules that apply to their phonology and how these compare to other languages.
  • For example: some languages are stress-fixed so the stress falls in the same place on every word, languages like Hungarian and Finnish are like this. However other languages like English have a set of rules which governs where stress falls.
  • It is useful to look at all languages, including endangered languages, to ascertain the limits of variation permitted.  THis allows us to discover what the phonological systems of human minds can and cannot do.
  • You can also use phonology within a country to look at specific dialects and compare them to one another.
  • Northern speakers do not contain what is known as the ‘strut’ vowel which is the vowel you here in words like ‘putt’ and of course ‘strut’ in Standard English.
  • Dialects and accents show a lot about how a country is divided and there are many stigmas attached to certain dialects. For example cockney is renowned for ‘g-dropping’ where the word final consonant <g> is dropped in words like ‘walking’. (For more on accents and dialects see Varieties of English)


Other than looking at specific languages, dialects and theories, phonology is also applied in many vocations and to an array of technology.

  • Speech (and song) recognition

This technology converts the spoken word into text. There are a variety of different machines that use different technology to do it. The most basic is represented in my diagram below.


This technology can be used in health care, business and even legal transcriptions. The most obvious use is on items such as phones where we can speak into the phone and it writes a text for us.

 

  • Speech synthesis

This is where a machine is used to artificially produce human speech. Such machines are judged on their quality by how close to human speech they actually sound. The most famous person that uses a speech synthesizer is Stephen Hawking.


This video demonstrates one of the earliest speech synthesizers. As you can see it is very big and not something you could easily carry around. So many developments have been made, which would have involved a lot of phonological research, to get to the technology they have today.

There are a variety of speech synthesizers and they get very complicated. The simplest is a text to phoneme conversion →This is where the machine stores a dictionary containing all the words of the language with their correct pronunciations. So when the word is written in, the machine converts it to the spoken word.

(For more information see Phonetics)

 

  • Speech Pathologies and Therapy
  • The vocation of a speech pathologist specializes in people with communication disorders. For us to produce speech it involves many components that involve both aspects of phonetics and phonology. This job involves examining the persons...
  • Speech (how they produce it, and the problems they have, if any.)
  • Cognitive aspects of communication (what is happening in the brain.)
  • Language (what is the person saying? Does it make sense?)

All these three are closely related to phonology and phonological processes. So to examine and understand people with this disorder you need a good understanding of phonology.

      • Swallowing (communication disorders can be linked to physical problems like this.)
      • Sensory awareness (another physical issue that can cause communication problems.

 

  • Language Acquisition and Development

This links to the ‘language acquisition’ part of the website. It is all about how humans acquire and learn to understand language along with producing and using words to communicate. Phonology plays a huge part in speech production and therefore is used to examine and analyse this stage in a child’s development. We can analyse how children formulate language and devise phonological theories of the connection between what happens in the brain and the sounds they produce.

        (For more see Language Acquisition)


  • Understanding Social Identity and Social Exclusion
It is the language and communication skills that we first learn that increase our interest and awareness as children. The more advanced our communication skills are the easier we find it to network and make friends.
In order to evaluate social exclusion we examine the phonology and delayed phonology of the person. This basically examines their communication skills so it can be identified if they struggle in social situations. 
These studies can represent someones 'social identity' i.e. where they fit in socially with other people. So ultimately how they interact with others; do they spend a lot of time alone or is the person someone with a huge social network who always likes to be surrounded by people. These studies can help explain behavioral problems that can cause people to do things out of the norm.  


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