A Layman's Guide to
Phonology and

(International Phonetic Alphabet)

Phonology is the study of pronunciation, in the "what" and "how" we make sounds. The apparatus are the organs which are used for speech, from the diagphram and lungs, and into the mouth to the outside of the body. In making sounds, we can concentrate on the region of the head and neck. The airstream mechanism is how the air is moved during speech. The nature in which the air is impeded along the way is known as articulation. Air which originates in the lungs is known as pulmonic air, and its direction outwards is termed egressive, so in normal speech the air-stream is pulmonic egressive. It is possible for sounds to be made with air from the oral cavity. Closing the back of the throat, and pursing the lips with a mouthful of air, draw back the tongue, whilst moving the mass of the tongue forward and contracting the cheeks, the air is forced out of the pursed lips, making a noise by the rapid opening and closing of the lips. Clicking with the tongue also makes a noise. These are known as oral airstreams mechanisms. Air which moves into the body to produce sounds is known as ingressive air. It is possible to speak by making the air go into out lungs, rather than out of it. However, you'll soon find that speaking egressively is much easier than ingressively for long periods of time.

The diagram above shows a cross section of the human head and various parts of the aparatus used in the production of human speech. Another air mechanism known as pharyngeal or throat air can be made by moving air in this region. Often, oral and pharyngeal are given the names velaric and glottalic respectively.

The cross section of the head above shows the organs that are used in the production of speech. The lips, tongue and velum can be moved at will, and known as the elastic organs. The movement of these, together with the airstream, aids in the production of human speech sounds. There are alternative names for these areas as follows.

Voicing is the actual vibration of the vocal cords. Consonants can be classed into two categories, voiced and unvoiced. Compare the consonant at the beginning of the sounds: pair and bare; tail and dale; kiddy and giddy; sue and zoo, few and view.

You can sense the vibrations in two ways. The first is to feel the area where your vocal cords are during the production of these sounds. The other way involves closing the ears to the outside by covering them up with one's hands.

By pronouncing them in a bold manner, and slowly, we can sense that the second of the two in the pair vibrate the vocal cords. Letters, p, t, k, s, and f are unvoiced because the vocal cords do not vibrate when articulating the sounds, however, b, d, g, z, and v do vibrate the vocal cords and so they are voiced. Note for each pair, the sounds are pronounced for the first and second in the same area in the mouth: p,b; t,d; k,g; s,z; f,v. Only the voices distinguishes the two sounds in each case.

There is also another way to distinguish a voiced and voiceless sound. Voiced consonants can be made to carry on long after their initial pronunciation, whilst unvoiced consonants can not. Try saying the following :


Aspiration occurs when there is an audible exhalation of breath. For instance, pine has an aspirated p, written ph, and spine is unaspirated, written with o beneath the p. In general, the listener hears for p, t, and k, the unaspirated version b, d and g when they are preceeded by s in English. Compare pill, till and kill, with spill, still and skill. Since both the unaspirated and aspirated p consonants are actually different forms of one another, they are called allophones.


If we write English bough, rough, ought, and though, the letters "ough" has a different sound in each case. Similarly, the English words "caught", and "precious" has different sounds represented by the letter c. Clearly then, English letters cannot be used effectively to represent sounds unambiguously. We can extend this also to each and every other alphabetical system in existence. How then to transcribe a sound which is unambiguous and yet accurate? We need the use of an International Phonetic Alphabet.

International Phonetic Alphabet

In order to record the sounds of human speech, we must devise a method which is roughly independent of the usual spellings in languages. First we shall look at the vowels. They are produced by varying the position of the tongue, and voicing the sounds which resonate in the area above the larynx and in the mouth. The IPA table of pulmonic consonants - consonants pronounced using air from the lungs follows and then other miscellaneous symbols.
IPA Vowels : IPA Consonants : Other Symbols


These are made with the aid of the tongue. Its positioning in the mouth affects the sound produced. All vowels are voiced in ordinary speech. It is often the most prominent sounds we hear.

The shape of the diagram is representative of the postion the tongue takes when pronouncing these vowels. Front, central and back refer to the place where these vowels occur along the tongue. Open and close (close as in the sense of 'being near to') and the ranges in between represent the height of the tongue from the mouth's palate. (Since the tongue is never obstructed during the production of a vowel it is never 'closed' in the sense of an obstruction by the tongue.)

The shape of the lips further subdivides and catalogues the sounds as shown above. A rounded vowel is one where there is rounding of the lips. The other type is known as unrounded vowels where there is some degree of lip spreading.

Pure Vowels are those shown in the above chart. When two vowels come together and there is movement in the tongue which differs from the intial to the final position, it is known as a dipthong. Naturally by this definition tripthongs would involve three vowels and hence three tongue positions.


There are a few sounds which have not been covered in the above table. Other terms used are

Affricate : Lateral : Semi-Vowel : Liquids

Place of Articulation

Manner of Articulation

Consonants (Pulmonary)

Other Symbols

Other Symbols

Non-Pulmonics Consonants


Tones and Word Accents


© Dylan W.H. Sung, except where otherwise noted.

The diagram of the head crossection was finished in May 19th 1998, and this page was begun on Sunday 18th October 1998.

The diagram of pulmonic consonants is taken from the IPA page at http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/IPA/fullchart.html.

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