Basic Phonology

Phonology is concerned about the way human sounds are made or articulated. The apparatus is made up of the organs of the body (such as diaphragm, lungs, windpipe, vocalchords, mouth cavity, the tongue, nasal cavity, lips) that are required to make speech. The sounds are often caused by an airstream mechanism which is the flow of air in or out of the body. Along the way, the air is impeded which gives rise to articulation.

Air which originates in the lungs is known as pulmonic and its directions out of the body cavity is known as egressive, therefore in normal speech, the airstream mechanism is pulmonic-egressive. Air which comes into the body to make a sound is in known as an ingressive airstream.

There is also an oral airstream mechanism which uses air within the oral cavity to produce sounds. This can be done by closing the back of the throat, and moving the tongue against the palate or roof of the mouth with some suction, to form a type of a click.

Organs of Speech

The main organs of speech are located in the head and neck. Below is a diagram locating the various parts.

Often used terms

Sounds depend on the place of articulation and manner of articulation. Another important factor in the sounds we make is voicing. This is the due to the vibration of the vocal chords. If the vocal chords do not vibrate during the production of the sound, it is known as unvoiced, likewise, if the vocal chords do vibrate, it is known as voiced


The International Phonetic Alphabet enables us to transcribe the sounds of any human language in a systematic way. It is independent of the quirks of local spelling or orthographic conventions. Here, we shall concern ourselves with the description of the consonants and vowels, as they are the basic elements of any language.

Below are the definitions of each place and manner of articulation, with relation to a table of IPA symbols.

Place of Articulation

Manner of Articulation


Arti-Place Bi
Dental Alveolar Post
Palatal Velar Uvular Pha-
Manner -tion - +- +- +- +- +- +- +- +- +- +- +
Plosive . .
Nasal . . . .
Trill . . . .
Tap or Flap . . . .
Lateral Fricative . . . . . . .
Approximant . .
Lateral Approximant . . . . . . . .
Comments . are deemed impossible - Voiceless Consonants + Voiced Consonants

There are of course sounds which can have components of more than one type of articulation.

Other Sounds and Symbols
Alveolo-Palatal Fricatives
Alveolar-Lateral Flap
Voiced Bilabial-palatal Approximant
Simultaneous and
Voiceless Bilabial Velar Fricative
Voices Bilabial Velar Approximant
Post Alveolar Affricates


Vowels are articulated by moving the tongue in the mouth cavity. You can see this by holding your jaws static and moving only the tongue whilst making a sound. The /a/ sound is made by fully opening the mouth, so that the tongue is as low as possible. By moving the tongue upwards, you progress to /i/ eventually, when the tongue is quite high, or close to the roof of the mouth. Notice that 'close' in this case has the sense of 'being near to'.

  # Front Central Back #  
1 8 H
2 7 M
3 6
4 5
    Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Half Rounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded    

The height of the tongue is often graded into levels such as high, high middle, middle, low middle, and low. Notice that close and high are synonymous with each other, as is, open and low, when talking about tongue height.

The formation of the vowel is also dependent on how the lips are shaped. As the word suggests, rounded means that the lips are rounded. Unrounded means that the lips are relaxed, and this can involve some measure of lip spreading.

The vowels that are pronounced depend of the position of the tongue, unsurprisingly. The tongue can be pushed forward, and this gives rise to a front vowel. By drawing it back a little, it becomes a central and when fully retracted inside the mouth, a back vowel results.

Compare English words "peat" [pi:t] and "boot" [bu:t]. The symbol : refers to a prolonging of the sound immediately before it. Both [i] and [u] are high vowels, their difference lies in two propertiess, front/back and open/closed.

There are some vowels in this table which are not represented in standard IPA charts. However, there are also symbols which have not been included in the above charts which are in IPA.

The numbers besides eight of the vowels are to indicate the Cardinal Vowels. These correspond to English recieved pronunciation (RP) in the following table. (We ignore the suprasegmentals indicating aspiration and vowel length in the IPA transcription in the following table.)

Cardinal VowelWordRPTongue HeightCardinal VowelWordRP
1peat Close / High 8boot
2date Half Close / Mid High 7boat
3pet Half Open / Mid Low 6bought
4pat Open / Low 5pot

The ones listed 1 through to 4 are all unrounded vowels, that is the corners of the mouth are relatively wide. Those listed 5 to 8 are all rounded vowels, that is, the corners of the mouth are brought together making the lips rounded.

Other Symbols

IPA symbols include a number of marks which indicate different properties which affect the pronunciation of the sound. However, to list them all in detail is outside the scope of this introduction. There are some often used symbols which may be useful to show here.

Symbols and Diacritics
Aspiration English verb 'kick'
Nasalisation French noun 'vent' noun meaning 'wind'.
Vowel Elongation English word 'bee'.


More charts of IPA symbols can be found at Descriptions about their use can be found in any good book on phonology. I recommend

For newsgroups which deal with language issues, the limited number of keyboard characters has been inconvenient. An ASCII version of the IPA can be found in Evan Kirschenbaum's article, "FAQ: Representaing IPA Phonetics in ASCII".

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