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The Significance/Function of Phonological Rules in Language Essay

In a language it is often difficult to tell what the phonetic transcription of a sound will be, when not in isolation. That is, the pronunciation of a sound in a word or sentence is influenced by the sounds around it, and thus, may not be the same as our mental phonemic representation. We can determine the proper phonetic transcriptions/representations of these sounds by first applying phonological rules to the phonemic representations.

Every language has a set of phonological rules that are learned sub-consciously by the native speaker. These rules can be applied to individual sounds, but mainly they apply to groups of sounds called natural classes (Fromkin, p.270). The rules help us to understand, what may appear to be irregularities in our language, to actually be predictable forms of speech. A non-native speaker may not be aware of these rules and thus may have difficulty with certain utterances. By being aware of these rules, a non-native speaker may become more native like in his/her speech.

There are many phonological rules, but I will discuss only three of them here: assimilation rules, feature-addition rules and segment deletion rules.

Assimilation rules are considered feature-changing rules, that is, the value of phonemic features are changed. The assimilation rule states that a sound becomes more similar to a neighboring sound. This is in large part due to the difference in the manner and place of articulation of each sound. When moving from one sound to another we want to move our articulators as little as possible. This easing of the articulators results in the assimilation of the two sounds. Palatalisation is an example of assimilation (Fromkin, p.477).

In palatalisation the alveolar ‘sounds /d/ and /t/ are pronounced further back in the mouth’ (Avery, p.89). They occur in the same position as the palatal glide /j/and are thus palatised. This usually occurs in fast or casual speech when you have words like what or did followed by a word beginning with the sound /j/. The resulting sounds would be: /d/ + /j/ = dZĀ and /t/ + /j/ = tS . Examples of this are:

Spelling Pronunciation(Fast speech)

Could you help me? [email protected]

Not yet natSet

Feature-addition rules are rules that add non-distinctive features to a sound. These non-distinctive features are predictable and do not affect the meaning of a word. An example of the feature-additional rule in English is the aspiration rule. This rule states that the voiceless stop consonants /k/, /p/ and /t/ are aspirated when they occur at the beginning of a word. Aspiration means that there is puff or burst of air when the voiceless stop is released. Look at the following words:

core score

pool spool

tool stool

Take a piece of paper and hold it close to your mouth. Say the words in the list above. You should notice that the paper moves when you say the words in the left column, but not in the right column. This is because of the aspiration rule. The voiceless stops in the first column are aspirated, but un-aspirated in the second column. If you switch the aspiration you will not get a change in meaning, therefore it is a non-distinctive feature.

A third phonological rule is the Segment Deletion Rules. These rules state that whole phonemic segments can be deleted. An example of this, in the English language, is final consonant clusters. When a final consonant cluster is followed by a word beginning with a consonant, the final consonant in the cluster can be released or deleted (Avery, p.86). However, if the following word began with a vowel, the final consonant cannot beĀ dropped. Look at the following examples:

Cluster Example Pronunciation

a) nd hand out h{nd aUt

b) th fifth inning fIfT InIN

c) nd hand rail h{n reIl

d) th fifth wheel fIf wi5

In examples a) and b) the final consonant cannot be dropped, but in c) and d) it is possible to drop the final consonant. This usually occurs in fast speech and can be confusing to non-native listeners (Schramm, 2001).

From the above examples we can see that the phonetic representations of words can differ greatly from the phonemic representations. We can also see that some rules are optional (like the deletion rule example). Fromkin best summarises the significance of rules by saying that “if the differences created by rules were unpredictable, it would be difficult to explain how we understand what we hear or how we produce utterances that represent the meaning we wish to convey.”(Fromkin, 2000: 286). In other words, without knowing these rules it would be difficult for us to correctly speak a language.


Avery, P., & Elrlich, S. (1997). Teaching American English Pronunciation (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fromkin, V., Blair, D., & Collins, P. (2000). An Introduction to Language (4th ed.). Marrickville, NSW: Harcourt.

Schramm, A. (2001). Lesson 9.2: Phonological Rules. Retrieved 3/16/2004 from

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