How are phonemics and phonetics different

Structure and history of Dutch An introduction to Dutch linguistics

Phonetics examines the realization of speech sounds, phonology deals with the sound system of a language.

In linguistics, a distinction is made between two disciplines that deal with pronunciation: the phonetics and the Phonology.

The interest of phonetics applies to the entirety of the sounds that can occur in a language and the actual realization of these sounds. Particular attention is paid to the different places and types of articulation of the sounds (this is the research area of Articulatory Phonetics), the physical characteristics of sounds (this is what the acoustic phonetics) and the perception of sounds (the research area of auditory phonetics).

The Phonology however, deals with the sound system of a language. It focuses less on the possible ways of forming sounds than on defining a fixed set of sounds for each language distinctive (distinctive) are. She does not investigate Phone (Sounds) like phonetics, but rather Phonemes (distinctive sounds).

The different approaches of phonetics and phonology can be seen from an analysis of the dutch / r / to be illustrated:

Phoneticians have different signs
for the different types r:

Tip of tongue-ralveolar vibration sound (trill)[r]
once rolled rtyped sound (tap)[ɾ]
Suppository ruvular fricative[ʁ]
Suppository ruvular vibration sound (trill)[ʀ]

In principle, there are different ways of pronouncing a / r / in Dutch. In some regions - e.g. in Flanders - a Tip of tongue-r preferred (a 'rolling' r, formed with the tip of the tongue). In other areas it is the so-called Suppository r more common, which is formed in the back of the mouth on the uvula. Furthermore, there are individual differences in the actual formation of a tongue tip-r (more or less long / strongly rolled) or suppository-r (as a fricative or more rolled / than trill) detectable.

For phoneticians, these are clearly different sounds: they are formed in different ways and in different places. For acoustic phoneticians, every single realization of an r is even different. The speech sound of an r can have differences, for example in sound pressure, intensity and the frequency of the pitch.

Minimum pairs:

cit / pit
peren / beren
boom / bom
heus / geus
kous / kuis
mot / bot

Phonologists, on the other hand, consider the different ways of pronouncing the Dutch r as variants (so-called Allophones) of the same phoneme / r /. The pronunciation of a word, such as advised with a tongue tip or uvula r does not change the meaning of advised. However, if you replace the r with an l, you get a completely different word, namely liet (the past tense of laten). / r / and / l / are therefore viewed as different phonemes: they bring about a difference in meaning, they have a meaning-distinguishing or distinctive function. This concept of Distinctivity is a central concept in phonology. Whether a certain sound has a meaning-distinguishing function is generally determined with the help of Minimal pairs examined, these are word pairs that differ from one another only in one sound, such as the minimal pair mentioned above advised / liet.

The Japanese inability to differentiate between l and r is repeatedly exploited in films for cheerful moments: For example, in the film 'Lost in Translation' (Sofia Coppola, 2003) a Japanese prostitute asks her American client: Lip my stockings!

The compilation of the Sound systems (Phoneme inventories) (the totality of meaning-distinguishing sounds) differs from language to language. What is an independent phoneme in one language is just an allophone (the variant of a phoneme) in another language and vice versa. In Spanish, for example, there are two r-phonemes: the typed sound (tap) and the long rolled tongue tip r. These can have different meanings, for example in pero (but) and perro (Dog). Japanese, on the other hand, as is well known, makes no distinction between l and r. In the Japanese phonetic system they are variants of one and the same phoneme.

Not only Japanese and Dutch, but also closely related languages ​​such as Dutch and Frisian have significantly different phoneme inventories. Frisian, for example, has two / u / phonemes: a long and a short one, as in the minimal pair hoes [hus] (Ndls. hoes) en hûs [hu: s] (Ndls. huis) becomes clear. Dutch, on the other hand, only has one / u / -phoneme, the one in the word hoes occurs. A longer pronunciation of the / u / in hoes would at most as an individual (maybe it's about a foreign language speaker) or situation-related deviation (someone pronounces the word emphatically: Geef mij nou eingelijk de hoes!) to be viewed as. In other words: as an allophone. A second possibility is a somewhat lengthened pronunciation of the / u / before r, for example in the word listen. In this case the 'normal' and the slightly longer pronunciations are used as combinatorial allophones designated. Depending on the phonological environment, the phoneme / u / is implemented as an allophone [u] or an allophone [u:].

Most speakers take the phonematic distinctions of their own language for granted, whereas those of other languages ​​are different: every Dutch speaker knows that r and l are different sounds in Dutch. Different types of r or a short and a long / u / are not perceived as different sounds. This becomes clear when learning foreign languages: Dutch people, die pero and perro pronounce the same and Japanese the liet not from advised can distinguish.

<oe>/ u /[u]
<r>/ r /[ʀ]

Three types of brackets are used to reproduce a sound or a letter: angle brackets for the letter of the alphabet that should represent a sound, Slashes for phonemes and square brackets for (allo) phones.


  1. What is the relationship between the anatomy of the human organs of articulation and the sounds used in the languages ​​of the world?

    It is clear that it is impossible to make a sound by rubbing the tip of the tongue against the uvula and that such a sound does not occur in any language. But does the fact that most languages ​​know an [a:] have something to do with the fact that this sound is formed without great effort and is clearly perceptible?

  2. How does our brain filter acoustic information?

    Consider, for example, the 'cocktail party effect': at a well-attended party, we can concentrate on what our interlocutor is saying and ignore the speech signals of the other guests. Or if we hear someone call our name at the other end of the room, we can listen to what is being said. At the same time, we no longer perceive (as well) what our interlocutor is saying. This phenomenon is called 'selective hearing' in auditory phonetics.


  1. Why is a Dutch word e.g. straat by a Spanish student estraat pronounced?

    We are in the field of phonotactics with this question. An examination of the Dutch or Spanish syllable structure can answer this question. Compare chapter The Dutch syllable.

  2. In a variant, which the Dutch professor Jan Stroop calls Polder Dutch, the ei sound is used in the word kijken pronounced not [ɛi] but [ɑi]. In addition, the long e is increasingly pronounced [ei]. Are we dealing with variants (allophones) of the phonemes [e] and [ɛi] spoken by a particular social group, or is there any indication of a change in the entire Dutch phoneme system? In the longer term, does Dutch get [ei] and [ɑi] as two separate phonemes and does [e:] disappear as a separate phoneme? See also the chapter Sociolects and the chapter North-South differences.

Most introductions to Dutch linguistics contain a section in the chapters on sounds that deals with the difference between phonetics and phonology: see Appel (1992 and 2002). Also chapter 1.2 in Van Oostendorp (2003). A treatment of the topic in German and English in Crystal (1995) and Crystal (2003).