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Phonetics vs. Phonology: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on November 11, 2023
Phonetics studies the physical sounds of speech; phonology studies how sounds function within a language.

Key Differences

Phonetics focuses on the physical production and perception of speech sounds, whereas phonology focuses on the systematic organization of sounds in a particular language.
In phonetics, we analyze the articulatory and acoustic properties of speech sounds. In phonology, we delve into the abstract or mental representations of these sounds.
While phonetics gives us tools and terms to describe how sounds are made, phonology helps us understand why a particular sound might change in different contexts or how sounds interact with each other in a language.
Phonetics can be considered a more concrete study, dealing with the tangible aspects of speech sounds – such as where the tongue is during the production of a sound. Phonology, on the other hand, is more abstract, concerning itself with the patterns and functions of sounds in particular languages.
In sum, phonetics provides the raw material – the sounds – that phonology then arranges in systematic ways based on the rules and structures of a given language.

Comparison Chart


Physical properties of sounds
Systematic organization of sounds in languages


Articulatory, acoustic, auditory aspects
Abstract or mental representations of sounds


Concrete, actual speech sounds
Abstract patterns and rules of sound in a language


Places of articulation, manners of articulation
Phonemes, allophones, syllable structures


Transcription of speech
Understanding sound patterns, rules, and alternations

Phonetics and Phonology Definitions


The study of the physical sounds of human speech.
To understand pronunciation, one must study phonetics.


The study of how sounds function within a particular language or languages.
Phonology helps us understand the sound patterns of English.


Concerned with the articulation and acoustic properties of speech sounds.
The phonetics of that word makes it difficult to pronounce.


Concerned with the abstract, systematic rules and structures of sound in language.
In Japanese phonology, certain vowel sounds are often devoiced.


Emphasizes the physical activities of the vocal organs.
Phonetics can reveal the intricate details of speech production.


Analysis of the way sounds function within a given language or across languages.
His research in phonology revealed some unique patterns in tonal languages.


Analysis of how sounds are produced, transmitted, and perceived.
She's taking a course in phonetics to better understand speech sounds.


Emphasizes the abstract properties and the organization of sounds in speech.
Phonology can explain why certain sound changes occur in specific contexts.


Deals with the physical aspects of sounds, like pitch, duration, and intensity.
In terms of phonetics, the intonation pattern of the sentence is fascinating.


Deals with the study of phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can distinguish meaning.
Phonology introduced me to the concept of minimal pairs in language.


The branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production, combination, description, and representation by written symbols.


The study of speech sounds in language or a language with reference to their distribution and patterning and to tacit rules governing pronunciation.


The sound system of a language
The phonology of English.


The study of the way sounds function in languages, including phonemes, syllable structure, stress, accent, intonation, and which sounds are distinctive units within a language.


The way sounds function within a given language; a phonological system.


The science or doctrine of the elementary sounds uttered by the human voice in speech, including the various distinctions, modifications, and combinations of tones; phonetics. Also, a treatise on sounds.


The study of the sound system of a given language and the analysis and classification of its phonemes


Can you give an example of a phonetic detail?

Sure, the sound "p" in English requires both lips to come together – this is a bilabial plosive in phonetic terms.

Is phonetic transcription related to phonetics or phonology?

It's related to phonetics – it captures the actual sounds of speech.

What does phonetics study?

Phonetics studies the physical production, transmission, and perception of speech sounds.

How is phonology different from phonetics?

While phonetics deals with the physical properties of sounds, phonology focuses on how sounds function within a particular language.

What's a phonological rule?

A phonological rule might explain why a sound is pronounced differently in different contexts within a language.

Why is understanding phonetics important for linguists?

Phonetics provides the tools to describe and understand the full range of human speech sounds.

Can phonetics help in speech therapy?

Yes, understanding phonetics can be crucial for addressing speech production issues.

Does phonetics involve studying the vocal cords?

Yes, phonetics examines all parts involved in speech production, including the vocal cords.

Can phonology predict how sounds change over time in languages?

Yes, phonological rules can often explain or predict historical sound changes.

Do all languages have the same phonological rules?

No, each language has its unique set of phonological rules.

Can phonology explain why I mix up sounds in my second language?

Often, yes. It might be due to differences in the phonological systems of your native and second languages.

How do I know if two sounds are different phonemes or just variants of the same phoneme in phonology?

If substituting one for the other changes meaning, they're different phonemes. Otherwise, they're likely allophones of the same phoneme.

Does phonology explain accents?

Phonology can help understand sound patterns in accents, though accents also involve phonetic variation.

What's the connection between phonology and spelling?

Phonology reflects the sound system of a language, while spelling often represents historical or morphological considerations. They don't always align.

Is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) used in phonetics or phonology?

It's a phonetic tool, used to transcribe the exact sounds of any language.

What's the goal of phonological analysis?

It aims to identify the sound patterns of a language and the rules governing these patterns.

In terms of phonetics, why might some sounds be harder for me to pronounce?

Some sounds might be unfamiliar in your native language, requiring new articulatory movements not commonly used by you.

Is phonetics only about consonants and vowels?

No, phonetics also studies aspects like pitch, tone, stress, and intonation.

Are all sounds in a language important in phonology?

Not all; phonology deals with phonemes, which are the distinctive sounds in a language.

How does phonetics relate to dialects?

Dialects can have phonetic variations, and studying them can provide insights into regional speech differences.
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Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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