I’ve also heard of phonology: Is that just another word for phonetics, or something different?

‘Phonetics’ is a bit like ‘dog’

At one level they’re dogs, at another level they’re not

At one level, ‘dog’ is a general word for any member of a particular species of animal. At this level, the word ‘dog’ contrasts with words for members of other species such as ‘cat’ or ‘horse’. Let’s call that the broad level.

At another level, ‘dog’ is a particular kind of animal within this species, specifically, an adult male canine. At this level, the word ‘dog’ contrasts with ‘bitch’ and ‘pup’. Let’s call that the narrow level.

OK, I love dogs but what’s this got to do with phonetics?

At a broad level, the word ‘phonetics’ covers the whole science of speech. We’ll call that ‘broad phonetics’ – and it’s the way we usually use the term ‘phonetics’ at Rethink Speech.

At a narrow level, the word ‘phonetics’ covers a particular branch of the science of speech. We’ll call that ‘narrow phonetics’ – and it’s the usage that contrasts with ‘phonology’. At this level, ‘phonetics’ and ‘phonology’ are often confused or misunderstood, especially in language teacher education.

In fact, to fully understand the difference between ‘narrow phonetics’ and phonology requires quite advanced study of ‘broad phonetics’, but let’s have a bash at a quick explanation here.

We can start with an analogy


Take a look at the colours on the right. In one sense they are all ‘the same’ – i.e. they are all shades of blue. In another sense, they are all ‘different’ – i.e. they are all shades or variants of blue (dark blue, light blue, greeny blue, purply blue, etc).


Now take a look at the colours on the left. We can say the same thing. From one point of view, they are all the same: red. From another point of view, they are all different: variants of red, including bright red, dark red, maroon, etc.

Now – if we were studying colours from a narrow-phonetics perspective, we’d be looking at all the differences among all the variants of blue and red.

If we were studying colours from a phonology perspective, we’d be looking only at the difference between red and blue, without getting concerned about variants within each colour category.

It’s the same with speech

Every unit of speech (for example, every individual speech sound, or phoneme) has lots of different variants. So the phoneme /p/, for example, has lots of variants; and the phoneme /s/ has lots of variants (we’ll come back to what they are in a sec).

When we take a phonology perspective, we only care about the major, inter-category differences (like the difference between /p/ and /s/). When we take a narrow-phonetics perspective, we look in detail at all the intra-category variants of /p/ and /s/.

Perhaps this analogy also lets you see what we mean by phonetics in the broad sense (the way we use it at Rethink Speech). Broad-phonetics is like the study of colours in general, interested in both the differences between red and blue (phonology), and the differences among the variants of red and the variants of blue (narrow-phonetics).

The really interesting thing about speech that makes phonetics challenging and fascinating

Are you wondering about that remark about ‘variants of /p/’ and ‘variants of /s/’?


With colours, anyone can easily see both the major differences between blue and red, and the minor differences among variants of blue and variants of red. Most of us can have a bash at describing the variants, at least to the extent of using general terms like ‘dark’, ‘light’ or ‘bright’ – though many have difficulty describing all the shades used for wall paint!

With speech, we are (mostly) pretty confident about the difference between categories like /p/ and /s/. However, most people never even notice these sounds have variants. They do (variants of phonemes are called allophones), but it takes special training to become aware of them – and even more training to be able to describe them with any kind of accuracy.

That makes it really hard to fully understand the distinction between phonetics and phonology at beginning levels of study. In fact, trying to make allophones, or even phonemes, easy enough to understand before you have understood some of the key demonstrations in RTS101 is dangerous!

So even if the above analogy gives you a sense of understanding (which we hope it does) please be assured the full situation is much more complex (and amazing) than it seems from simple definitions.

Do you know what a ‘phoneme’ is? Are you sure?

We’ll end with a technical point that you can safely ignore for the first part of your Rethink Speech journey – but that needs to be put ‘out there’ for the record.

The word ‘phoneme’ used to be a technical term of linguistics, but lately it has come into everyday use. That’s fine – but it is worth being aware that the everyday use is quite different from the technical definition.

In everyday use, a ‘phoneme’ is just a ‘speech sound’ or a ‘bit of speech about the same size as a letter, but ignoring complications like ‘gh’ in ‘rough’ being two letters when it is really one sound’.

Now that is an important concept, and one we do need an everyday word for. But it’s a bit unfortunate the word ‘phoneme’ was chosen to fill that role.

In linguistics, to refer to a sound as ‘the phoneme /p/’ is a bit like referring to a colour as ‘blue’ or ‘red’, ignoring the fact the same colour can also be referred to as ‘dark blue’ or ‘maroon’.

That is pretty hard to understand until you have really studied quite a bit of phonetics (including phonology), as we’ve just discussed. But with the word ‘phoneme’ being so common in everyday vocabulary these days, it’s easy for people to feel that knowing the everyday concept is all there is to it.

Having gone into all that complication, the good news is that in the unlearning modules, Rethink Speech just uses the everyday definition of ‘phoneme’ (unless explicitly stated otherwise).

So if the above is clear as mud, feel free to ignore it till after you have done RTS101! Just know there is an issue that we’ll come back to when the time is right.