The Difference Between Phonetics and Phonology

Phonetics and phonology are the two fields dedicated to the study of human speech sounds and sound structures. The difference between phonetics and phonology is that phonetics deals with the physical production of these sounds while phonology is the study of sound patterns and their meanings both within and across languages. If they still sound like more or less the same thing, read on. We’ll discuss each one individually and then compare them side by side, which should clear things up.


Phonetics is strictly about audible sounds and the things that happen in your mouth, throat, nasal and sinus cavities, and lungs to make those sounds. It has nothing to do with meaning. It’s only a description. For example, in order to produce the word “bed,” you start out with your lips together. Then, air from your lungs is forced over your vocal cords, which begin to vibrate and make noise. The air then escapes through your lips as they part suddenly, which results in a B sound. Next, keeping your lips open, the middle of your tongue comes up so that the sides meet your back teeth while the tip of your tongue stays down. All the while, air from your lungs is rushing out, and your vocal cords are vibrating. There’s your E sound. Finally, the tip of your tongue comes up to the hard palate just behind your teeth. This stops the flow of air and results in a D sound as long as those vocal cords are still going. As literate, adult speakers of the English language, we don’t need a physical description of everything required to make those three sounds. We simply understand what to do in order to make them. Similarly, phoneticists simply understand that when they see /kæt/, it’s a description of how most Americans pronounce the word “cat.” It has nothing to do with a furry house pet. In fact, if there were a word in any other language pronounced the same way, the phonetic spelling would be the same regardless of meaning. Again, it’s not about meaning. It’s strictly physical.

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Phonology, on the other hand, is both physical and meaningful. It explores the differences between sounds that change the meaning of an utterance. For example, the word “bet” is very similar to the word “bed” in terms of the physical manifestation of sounds. The only difference is that at the end of “bet,” the vocal cords stop vibrating so that sound is a result only of the placement of the tongue behind the teeth and the flow of air. However, the meanings of the two words are not related in the least. What a vast difference a muscle makes! This is the biggest distinction between phonetics and phonology, although phonologists analyze a lot more than just the obvious differences. They also examine variations on single letter pronunciations, words in which multiple variations can exist versus those in which variations are considered incorrect, and the phonological “grammar” of languages. If you are a native speaker of English, you pronounce the letter P three different ways. It’s true. You may not realize it, but you do, and if you were to hear the wrong pronunciation, you might not be able to put your finger on the problem, but you would think it sounded really weird. Say the word “pop-up.” The first P has more air behind it than the others, the second is very similar to the first, but it doesn’t have much air in it, and the last one is barely pronounced at all. The word just sort of ends there when your lips close. Now, say it again, but put a lot of air in the final P. See? Weird, right? That’s because the aspirated P (with air) sound is not “grammatically” correct at the end of an English word. Similarly, Spanish words do not begin with an “s” sound followed by a consonant, which makes it very difficult for Spanish-speakers who are learning English to say words like “school,” “speak” and “strict.” Phonologists study things like that.

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Side-by-Side Differences Between Phonetics and Phonology

If you’re still confused about which is which, here’s a little side-by-side comparison to help you out:

Phonetics is strictly physical while phonology also pays attention to the function or meaning of a sound.

Phonetics only asks, “Does this sound go here or not?” Phonology asks, “Does the meaning change if I put this sound here instead of that one?”

Phonetics makes a pretty general description of sounds and can be used to describe sounds in any language. Phonology makes very detailed descriptions of sounds, so each language has its own unique set of symbols (because no two languages use all of the same sounds).

Hopefully, that clears things up, but if you need one more way to remember the difference between phonetics and phonology, look at the word endings. Phonetic ends the same way as kinetic, which refers to movement. Both are purely physical. Phonology, like any other -ology, is more of a science, exploring the hows and whys of the physical.

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