(Original post by http://www.auditory.org/postings/2005/657.html)
Let me give it a try. Phonetics is the science of the sounds of speech. It
includes the study of speech production mechanisms (articulatory
phonetics), of the acoustic characteristics of speech (acoustic
phonetics), and of speech perception. It involves speech scientists,
speech pathologists, engineers, acousticians, and psychologists who do
measurements and experiments. Phonology is a subfield of linguistics. It
is concerned with the sound structure of languages in the abstract,
usually without any measurements or experiments. It deals with abstract
units called phonemes and investigates the rules by which they are
combined to make words. There is a small group of people who take an
empirical approach to phonology ("laboratory phonologists"), but most
phonologists just sit at their desk and rely on their intuitions and
In psychology, the term "phonological" has been misused a great deal. For
example, people are said to rehearse verbal material by means of a
"phonological loop", which is really inner speech and has nothing to do
with phonology as such. Perhaps you are a psychologist and are confused
for that reason.
The difference between phontics and phonology is perhaps quickly explained
in introductory classes (the phoneme as the "underlying" form), but in
practice, it often turns out to be quite difficult to decide whether one
is dealing with phonetics or with phonology; e.g is a given observed
variation due to coarticulation (phonetics) or to assimilation (phonology)
or both(!)? Therefore, the issue remains implicit quite often and also
depends on the theoretical framework. Phonology is defined differently in
"generative" approaches or in "natural" approaches, this has effects on
the integration of phonetics. In the same way phonetic theories might
integrate phonology differently.
The difference between phonology and phonetics is fundamental.
The perception of speech sounds implies their categorization. Phonological
categorization includes only the features that are relevant for
transmitting meanings. Phonology studies the sound features that are
relevant for linguistic communication * as well as their distribution and
organization into phonological systems. Phonemes form systems. Phonetic
sciences study all kinds of acoustic characteristics that the sounds can
display regardless of whether they are or not relevant for the primary
function of a particular language - that is transmitting linguistic
meanings. Various acoustic characteristics of speech sounds can be
relevant for example for speaker identification, for his mood or emotions
but totally irrelevant for the linguistic code he/she is using at the
moment of speaking. It wasn't until experimental phonetics made progress,
that phonologists could clearly separate their science from phonetics.
Both synchronic and diachronic phonology study the way speakers perceive,
produce and arrange the speech sounds in order to transmit linguistic
meanings. Phonology belongs to humanities, and phonetics to natural
As fundamental reading I would suggest the great classic N. S.
Troubetzkoy's Principals of Phonology. By this work Troubetzkoy made a
crucial epistemological contribution to linguistic sciences.
I think it was Trubetskoy who first said that Phonetics is to Phonology as
Numismatics is to Economics. Although in the years following the Prague
School, as people started examining speech sounds closer, some speech
scientists thought that a more appropriate analogy was that of History to
Mythology. While I wouldn't advocate for either of these views, it does
seem that they reflect alternative ways in which relationships between
phonetics and phonology have been considered in the past. Ideally, I
think, phonetics and phonology can complement each other on different
levels of analysis, but the demarcation lines between them are often
phonetics deals with the speech sounds as they
are produced whereas phonology regards the underlying structures and
processes. Representatives from both sides sometimes claim that the other
area would be a part of the own field. But in the end it is better not to
ignore the other viewpoint (as often).
"Phonology is discrete, Phonetics is continuous."
- Mario Svirsky, ca. 1995