Double articulation is a linguistic term referring to the two levels into which language can be divided. Meaningful units of sound, called morphemes, make up the first level, while the second level consists of phonemes, or sounds without meaning by themselves. In addition, the term double articulation can also be applied to any semiotic code, or method of communication, which can be analyzed on two levels.
The first level of articulation in a language consists entirely of morphemes. Some morphemes are entire words, such as “dog” or “child,” while others are only part. For example, the word “unbelievable” is made of three morphemes: “un-,” “-believ-,” and “-able,” each with a specific meaning. Morphemes like these make up the words and sentences people use to communicate.
Phonemes, which are simply sounds without meaning, compose the second level of articulation. A phoneme is not the same thing as a letter, although some phonemes can be written with one. Others use multiple letters, while some letters are used for different phonemes depending on their context. By themselves these sounds can’t communicate anything, but together they make the morphemes of the first level of articulation.
Very few phonemes are available in each language. Approximately 40 to 50 distinct phonemes exist in English, while Spanish only uses between 20 and 30. Nevertheless, both languages have thousands of words, which can create an infinite number of utterances. This idea of the two levels of articulation making possible an infinite number of utterances from a very small set of sounds is known as productivity.
The concept of double articulation and its productivity can be applied to any semiotic code that qualifies. A semiotic code is simply a method of communication, including languages, signs, and symbols; however, not all semiotic codes have double articulation. Some scholars believe the visual arts, architecture, and film are doubly articulated. For example, in a painting, the first level could be shapes, and the second level, colors.
Similarly, many computer codes have double articulation. At the second level of articulation, numbers, letters, and symbols are combined to form words. Then, in the first level of articulation, those words are ordered into statements. This enables computer programmers to create a huge variety of programs from a very small number of symbols.
In linguistics, double articulation is also known as duality in language to avoid confusion with the doubly articulated consonant. A doubly articulated consonant is made by creating sound in two places simultaneously. The most common types are labial-dorsal articulations, such as the clicks common in western and central Africa.