Course overview

To "know a language," a speaker needs to know its phonology — which speech sounds occur in that language, how those sounds can be put together to build morphemes and words, and how particular sounds alter their form when their environments change.

Your phonological knowledge is largely unconscious, but it shapes your language behavior in many ways: it determines which speech sounds seem "similar" or "different" when you hear them, it may cause you to have a foreign accent when you learn a new language, and it affects what happens when you attempt a tongue twister or make a speech error. Phonological knowledge also has effects on child language acquisition, language disorders, how words are borrowed from other languages, the development of reading and writing skills, and more.

The phonological system can differ across languages. Sounds that are separate phonemes (mental categories) in one language may belong to the same phoneme in another. Syllable structures that are allowed in one language may be prohibited in another. And yet, there are fundamental similarities across phonological systems as well. Arguably, all languages have consonants, vowels, and syllables. All languages prefer simple syllable structures, even if they tolerate complex structures too. Some of the ways that speech sounds interact with each other are seen in language after language.

Course goals

In Ling 200, we investigate phonological phenomena from many different languages, both in class discussion and through frequent exercises and problem sets that are designed to give you hands-on experience with phonological analysis. The ultimate goal of phonological research is to develop a general theory of how speech sounds are represented in the mental grammar. We want our theory to explain why speakers produce the sound patterns that they produce, and we want it to account for the similarities and the differences in sound patterns across the languages of the world.

See the schedule of topics for more details.


There is no textbook for this course. You will typically prepare for class by working through phonological data sets or online activities that will set the stage for class discussion. Class discussion and problem-solving are often followed up by notes and handouts posted to this web site, which you should be sure to review after class. Occasionally, longer readings are also distributed online or in class.


Ling 101 (Introduction to Language) or permission of instructor.

FAQ — Frequently asked questions about phonology at UNC