Despite the single-word name, Ling 521 covers basic phonetics and phonology. Phonetics is the study of linguistic sounds, both how they are produced (articulatory phonetics) and processed (acoustic & auditory phonetics). Phonology is the study of how sounds get used and organized within languages. In short, this class covers the key points of how spoken language is produced and perceived.

We use Elizabeth Zsiga’s book The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology for most of this class. I’ve included my own notes and worksheets on these various topics below.

picture of mouth

Articulatory Phonetics

We start by covering the basics of articulation. How do we produce the various sounds of a language? What makes an “s” sound different from a “z” sound? (Hint: touch your throat as you make each of them. You should feel vibrations from one but not the other.)

How do languages differ in the set of sounds they contain? How do we explain and classify the differences between sounds? How do you make the Arabic sound that gets written as “Q” in English? Why aren’t the vowels in English lay and Spanish leche quite the same?

We cover the International Phonetic Alphabet, articulatory phonetic features, and airstream mechanisms. We also spend a lot of time making sounds to each other, feeling out how unfamiliar sounds are produced.

Acoustic Phonetics

These different articulations only matter because they change the sound of the airflow being produced; it’s primarily the sounds rather than the articulations that we use to tell what someone’s saying.

Acoustic phonetics covers the basics of sound waves, and how they are broken down into their components by our auditory system. We examine how articulatory differences induce acoustic differences, looking at waveforms, spectral slices, and spectrograms. We focus on such acoustic features as the fundamental frequency and the F1 and F2 formants.

Rule-Based Phonology

Transitioning to phonology, we now examine how languages put together their sounds. We briefly look at phonotactics, the relative acceptability of different sound sequences in a specific language. We focus on formalizing the relationship between the mental lexicon’s underlying forms of a word or intonational phrase, and the way that these actually surface in production.

We cover Sounds Patterns of English-style notation for rules, including feature-value pairs, feature bundles, and alpha notation. We discuss common and uncommon phonological processes cross-linguistically, and transition from articulatory phonetic features to abstract phonological features. We handle phonological analyses from a wide variety of languages, including cases of rule ordering, feeding, and bleeding.

Constraint-Based Phonology

We wrap up with a brief overview of Optimality Theory, a prominent constraint-based approach to phonology. Whereas rule-based phonology treats the phonological processes like an assembly, with a sequence of precisely-defined changes applied unwaveringly, constraint-based phonology considers multiple possible surface forms, and chooses the one that best satisfies the violable constraints of the language. (This is my favorite part of the class.)

We cover the four key components of Optimality Theory (Gen, Con, H, and Eval) and the main constraints (Max, Dep, Ident, Agree, NoCoda, etc.). We look at how constraint rankings are determined for a language through ranking arguments, and apply these to a range of complex phenomena.

images sourced from unsplash