Phonemic, phonetic, phonology - further information

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This page expands on the more elementary information at Phonemic, phonetic, phonology.

See, for examples of the confusion between phonetics and phonology, the quotations in the OED. Further evidence of the confusion may be found in the fact that the OED (1989) gives 'phonology' as one definition of 'phonetics'. Under 'phonology' it says: "Orig., the science of vocal sounds (= PHONETICS), esp. of the sounds of a particular language; the study of pronunciation; transf. the system of sounds in a language. Now, that branch of linguistics which deals with sound systems, or with sound systems and phonetics; the study of the sound system of a particular language.

The domain of phonology is variously limited by different linguists and linguistic schools of thought. In the writings of the Prague school it is used to mean phonemics."

There is also an important distinction between phonetics and phonemics, as the last sentence may have suggested to you. Unfortunately, experts disagree about the difference in the meanings of these two words as well. Different schools of thought in linguistics use the two words differently. About the only thing on which all agree is that the difference is significant.

The advice based on AWE's usage is to use phonetics as the more usual word. We rarely use the word phonemics. To make a distinction, use phonetics as the name of a more precise and scientific study of the sounds of language. In phonetics, the differences between individuals' speech - their allophones - can be described. Phonemics is then 'the study of phonemes', and is a broader term - though probably only used among linguists. The commonest term among the academic community beyond linguistics for any study of 'the sounds of language' is phonetics.

The school of linguists whose usage AWE follows might suggest this: with phonemics, one can describe a sound as used by all competent native speakers. With phonetics, one can describe the speech sounds of an individual - although one may need laboratory equipment to do it well. Teachers of non-native students normally use the tools of phonemics. Many classroom teachers of English as a Foreign Language never use the skills of phonetics in this narrow sense. In the broader sense of 'the sounds of language', the word phonetics is part of course descriptions and lessons.

(Teachers of English as a Foreign Language rather than of linguistics or phonetics really mean 'the sounds of the English language' when they use the words phonemics and phonetics. This is because most simply do not know some of the sounds that exist in human language, like the 'clicks' in some Southern African languages, or the sibilants of Chinese languages, or the use of tone (rising, falling etc) in Mandarin.)