Phonology Means Nothing
Speech has a dual nature, being both an aspect of language and a channel of communication (Hockett, 1960). The dual nature of speech is important to our profession because it is the basis of the conceptual distinction between phonology and articulation and the basis of the difference between phonological and articulation disorders.
Both parts of speech’s dual nature (phonology and channel of communication) have their secrets and mysteries. The channel of communication is remarkable for its speed and complexity. Every time a person speaks, speech travels through their brain as electric current, then as muscle contractions, before rippling across the air to vibrate through the bones and membranes of a listener’s middle ear, then turning to a wave of water in their inner ear, becoming electricity again, and traveling as electricity through nerves to reach the correct places in the brain of a listener. Each time a person talks, this happens many times a second, all without us sparing it conscious thought!
Speech’s phonology half also has its secrets and mysteries, though of a very different sort than that of the channel of communication. To my mind, its most remarkable aspect is one that everyone knows and believes is so obvious as not needing mention. The trick of phonology’s remarkable secret lies in recognizing that something in plain sight has such profound importance.
Phonology is the knowledge of language rules that underlie speech. Examples of phonological elements include distinctive features, phonemes, syllables, stress, and intonation. The essential characteristic of these and other elements in the phonological system is that they lack meaning. To illustrate, s, t, and m have no meaning in themselves, but other language systems recruit them to create meaning. For example, combined with other consonants and vowels they make words such as sun, see, tea, toe, me, and myth.
Consonants, vowels, syllables, and intonation may seem mundane, relatively insignificant aspects of language, but they are what make the rest of language possible. Because the foundation of our language is meaningless sounds that represent nothing, they can express a nearly infinite number of different meanings, allowing us to express whatever meanings are important in our social and physical environments.
To appreciate the role phonology plays in human language, imagine it organized differently. For example, pretend that each consonant and vowel, instead of being meaningless, is associated with a meaning. For example, s represents anger, w represents sadness, and t represents touch. If this were so, s could not appear in sweet or sun, or other words, since s always represents anger.
If phonology had a similar organization, humans could express very few different meanings. In fact, the world of different things to talk about would closely equal the number of sounds we could produce. To illustrate, if our vocal tracts could pronounce 120 different sounds, we could talk about approximately 120 different things, one thing per sound.
You can perform a quick thought experiment to see just how restricted life would be if you could only talk about 120 things, one per each sound your vocal tract could produce. Counting to 100—that uses up 100 of your 120 meanings. The alphabet of an English-like languages uses 26 meanings, so you’re already over your limit of 120. And you haven’t even gotten to colors, grammatical markers, the weather, favorite and dangerous foods, family members, flowers, or features of the landscape.
And then comes the real problem of the limit to 120 meanings: how do you name something new in your environment? For example, suppose you are living in a little house on a dangerous animal–filled savannah (I don’t know why you are living there—let’s just say you are), and a new predator enters your territory. You would like to be able to name it—in fact, your survival may depend on being able to do this, so you can warn others of the animal’s approach. To name it, some other meaning would need to go to keep to your limit of 120 meanings. What do you choose to drop? Only count to 99? Drop the first letter of your alphabet? Discard the name of a family member? I’m sure you see the point: human life with such limitations would be impossible.
In no small measure, human adaptability depends on possessing a language system that allows the expression of an almost infinite number of meanings using a small set of sounds. This allows humans to enter a new environment and create vocabulary to describe the place in which they find themselves. This has allowed humans to spread out across the world and flourish in such diverse places as deserts, mountains, forests, and tundra. Just as easily, phonology would allow us to live on a satellite, the moon, or a distant planet.
Indeed, phonology is so critical to language and so uniquely human that we could define ourselves in the following way:
Humanity is the species whose cornerstone of communication means nothing.
That is, humanity is the species whose language includes phonology.
Hockett, C. (1960). The origin of speech. Scientific American, 203, 88–111.