Significant contrast and insignificant differences
If you have studied phonology, I assume that you are aware of the importance of using difference (=contrast) in assigning meaning.
Phonology tells you that
- a number of sounds which can be produced by humans (that’s phonetics)
- will be assigned some meanings (that’s phonology).
This assignment of meaning will work out in a language in a way that allows people to distinguish between meanings (and this, of course, will usually be different in another language).
We have very basic examples like “try & dry” which are differentiated by the fact that one has some vocal cords vibration at the beginning which conveys a different meaning: TRY vs. DRY.
That one difference gives you the difference in meaning, but there are cases where
the difference is not essential, because it’s not necessary in distinguishing meaning.
Let’s say I make a mistake and I say ThRY, maybe I’m pronouncing the T with a much more forceful expulsion of air than you’re normally used to, then you’d just think “He’s mispronouncing the word”, but there is no difference in meaning, it’s still (in English) TRY.
The concept of “difference” is probably the most fundamental in building up our theories about what can be done in a language in terms of sounds and meanings.
We have sounds which have been assigned (arbitrarily) some meaning. If you don’t believe that the association between sounds and meanings is completely arbitrary, look at how every language has assigned random sounds to signify “the sounds made by some animal”.
We have somebody (in England) hearing a dog saying bow-wow, somebody else (in Romania) hearing ham-ham, somebody else (in Japan) hearing wan-wan, and then again somebody else hearing something else, but it’s all about sounds made by a dog. Are there different kinds of dogs?
A dog “barks” in English but “cries” in Japanese…
The concept of difference is one of the most essential in helping us piece together sounds after we have taken apart the field of semantics.