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Phonology is the study of the organization and use of sounds in natural languages.[1] Phonologists describe and categorize the sounds of speech using the international phonetic alphabet, a system of symbols used to unambiguously represent individual speech sounds in all the world's languages.

The phoneme is the sound, while it can have many different representations by characters of that sound in the language. For example, the phoneme "j" (IPA nomenclature, the same as the old affricate /dʒ/) is expressed in English by the characters "Y" (as in "yes"), "i" (as in "onion"), and "j" (as in "hallelujah")[2] Meanwhile, the other "j" sound has five different expressions: j, g, ge, dge, and d.[3]

There are 44 sounds (phonemes) in English, while only 24 in Spanish, 34 in French, 46 in German, and 49 in Italian.[2] There are thousands of different phonemes in Chinese.

Terms used in phonology

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound whose change can change the meaning of what is said.[4] In English there are 44 phonemes:

  • 19 consonants (some say 18; the letters c, q, and x use sounds found elsewhere: c is k or s, q is kw, and x is ks).
  • 5 short vowels
  • 5 long vowels
  • 7 digraphs
Consonants: ch, ng, sh, th
Vowels: ai, air, ar, ear, ee, er, igh, oa, oo, or, ur, ow, oi, ure
Other: aw, au, ay, ou (four different sounds), ie, ea, oi, ir, ph, ew, oe, ue, wh
  • 5 r-related sounds,
  • 2 distinct "oo" sounds (as in book/rook and moon/food/fool)
  • 2 diphthongs

A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ by only one phoneme, e.g., hit and hid. The existence or not of a minimal pair tests whether two apparently different sounds are actually phonemes.[5]

An allophone (from Greek "other" and "sound") is an audibly distinct sound that is not a separate phoneme. Examples are the aspirated initial p and unaspirated final p of pip.[6] In English, there is no minimal pair, while in some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, there could be, in which case those two sounds would be phonemes, not allophones.

Tone is the use of pitch to distinguish words. Different tones that distinguish words in the same way as phonemes are called tonemes, and languages with tonemes are called tonal languages. The majority of languages in the world are tonal languages.[7]

Alternative groupings

There are alternative groupings of the 44 sounds.[8] Regional accents can result in variations on these sounds in English.


The sound represented by /æ/ is the "a" in ​""[9] It is slightly different from the "a" in "cat" and "bat".

See also


  1. Phonology, from LinguaLinks Library
  2. 2.0 2.1
  4. Definition of phoneme
  5. Definition of minimal pair
  6. Definition of allophone
  7. Tone (linguistics)