Phonetics & Phonology

With their names derived from the Ancient Greek phōnē meaning “sound, voice”, these two fields are concerned with the sounds of speech.


Phonetics is concerned with the production- the way we make sounds- and perception – the way we understand sounds. Modern phonetics has three subfields:

  • Articulatory phonetics– how humans plan and execute the movements that produce speech
  • Acoustic phonetics- how different movements affect the speech properties
  • Auditory phonetics– how humans convert sound waves to linguistic information


Phonology is concerned with how particular languages or dialects systematically organise sounds. While phoneticians study sounds isolated from a particular language, phonologists study the way sounds function within a specific language system to encode meaning.

The International Phonetic Alphabet

There are lots of sounds that languages don’t have symbols for in their alphabet. For example, in English the sound made at the end of swimming is represented by two letters n and g. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet designed to represent all the sounds of speech, even when your language does not have a symbol for them. In the IPA, the ng sound is represented by the symbol ŋ. There are also many sounds that English does not have in its phonology, such as the sound at the end of loch in Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Scots. If you know this word, you know the sound is very different to other English words spelt with a ch. This sound is represented by the symbol x in the IPA.

You can find an interactive version of the IPA chart here.