What is the difference between a phonetician and a phonologist? I've seen these two terms somewhere on this site but can't figure out the difference.


1 Answer 1


The difference resides in the subject matter that they investigate. They have in common the fact that they investigate language sound systems. Phonology specifically looks at sound from the perspective of computations involving discrete units (including sets of individual units), such as [p] or [p,b,m], and phonetics involves the mapping between symbolic sound and physical sound. So while phonology would describe [p] as e.g. a "bilabial voiceless stop" or [+anterior,-coronal,-voice] depending on your theoretical framework, phonetics would describe the sound in terms of a particular pattern of duration in milliseconds, formant transitions, amplitudes, as well as articulatory movements; also, phonetics would study how incoming continuous sound waves are interpreted as discrete sounds.

There is a high degree of interdependency between these disciplines, so a phonological analysis is based on prior phonetic work that allows us to make a rough mapping between continuous sound and individual segments like [p]. Likewise, a phonetic analysis generally looks at properties of classes of discrete sounds, for example the way that formant transitions differ between [p,b,m] versus [t,d,n], where you need a prior phonological analysis of a language to decide that a certain part of the speech stream is a "p" or a "t".

  • It is obvious to human speakers of English whether a sound is a "p" or a "t"; it doesn't "need a prior phonological analysis".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 20:24
  • Presumably those people are doing their own intuitive phonological analysis. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 20:52
  • Speakers of English already did their rough phonetic analysis when they were babies.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 20:53
  • I don't think it's useful to describe phonetics as investigating 'language sound systems'. Phonetics investigates human speech sounds without reference to the system in a particular language. And in working on a previously-undescribed language phonological analysis is often prior to phonetic work as you need to establish the contrasts before investigating the precise acoustic nature of the segments (altho they typically proceed hand-in-hand). Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 8:04
  • 1
    I have to completely disagree, indeed it is phoneticians who first introduced the phrase "language sound systems" into contemporary P research. Observe the research of Ladefoged, Maddieson, Cohn, Keating and Ohala as examples. Perhaps you are thinking of "speech and hearing scientist".
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 16:21

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