Sounds and Meaning

In this section, I am going to introduce how sounds relate to meaning. A key concept is that there are the sounds themselves, which are made in approximately the same way by all speakers of a language, and the sounds we hear and we believe we are making.

The first three things to learn about are phones, phonemes, and morphemes.

Phones are the sounds that you make, phonemes are the sounds that you hear, and morphemes are larger units of meaning. Syllables, which you have almost certainly heard of, do not convey meaning but separate the vowels into separate units. They are important for the rhythm of the language, and how they are stressed can change the meaning.


This notation will be used throughout.  This is standard linguistics notation. 

For words or parts of words written in ordinary spelling (called a gloss), I will use double quotes (“).  For example,


For phonemes, the sounds that we perceive we hear, I used slashes (/).  For example,


For phones, I will use square brackets ([]).  This is tricky because the level of detail can be extreme and often the sounds are not transcribed in the most possible detail.  I use it to transcribe variations that could change meaning in one language but don’t in English.  In the next section, I discuss the /t/ phoneme in detail and I will use the notation heavily.