Phonological Rules


In Fromkin/Rodman (1998, 279-300), chapter 7 on Phonology, you will find a nice introduction to phonological rules. In the older Fromkin/Rodman (the one that is in the Semesterapparat this is pp. 95.

In Clark/Yallop (1995), the relevant chapter is the one on generative phonology.


What is described by phonological rules

In Theory
  • the phonological rule
  • information on
    • the affected segment
    • its phonemic environment
    • the phonetic change
  • formal notation
    A --> B / X ___ Y
A Practical Example
  • nasalisation of oral vowels in English
  • information on
    • oral vowels
    • before nasal consonants
    • become nasal vowels
  • formal notation
    V --> V~ / ___ N or
    V [-nasal] --> V [+nasal] / ___ N

Formal notation of phonological rules

These are some of the symbols used for the formal notation of phonological rules:

Symbols Meaning
--> "is changed into"
/ "in the environment of"
___ position of the affected segment
# word boundary
$ syllable boundary
0 "nothing"

Types of phonological rules

In class, we will talk about

There are also dissimilation rules and metathesis, i.e. movement, rules but we will not discuss them in class.

Each language has its own set of phonological rules and when you learn a learn a language you will have to learn the phonological rules as well as the phonemes. This is sometimes difficult for learners, e.g. when you as a German native speaker learn French you have to "unlearn" the aspiration rule for voiceless plosives. English native speakers who learn German, on the other hand, have to learn the devoice-voiced-plosives-in-word-final-position rule.

The idea behind phonological rules

Generative phonologists, who have worked extensively with phonological rules, work on the basic assumption that every speaker has a mental lexicon full of abstract entries of phonological forms in his or her head. These abstract stored entries are underlying representations and serve as input for the phonological rules. These underlying forms then undergo a derivational process which is defined by the phonological rule. The output of that process is the phonetic representation of the pronunciation.

So basically the phonological rules work like this:

underlying representation phonological process phonetic represention
/kINkON/ Nasalise oral vowels if they occur before nasal consonants! [kI~NkO~N]

NOTE: The transcriptions are given in SAMPA. /I/ stands for the short, high, front vowel, /N/ stands for the velar nasal, /O/ stands for the short, low-mid, back vowel and /~/ stands for nasalisation.


Click here to get to the exercises for phonological rules. You will find examples for a number of phonological processes in English and German which illustrate phonological rules.

Work together in groups of three or four people. Choose one example, read it carefully and try and understand what is happening to the phonemes. Then find out

Then try and formulate the rule first in words and then in formal notation.

Make sure you can explain what you have done so that the others will understand you when your group presents their results in class for the others.

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Sophie Salffner, last modified April 2004