Many professors of Intro to Linguistics courses choose to begin the semester by launching into phonetics, much to the student’s dismay. The material is foreign, difficult to grasp (it doesn’t seem to relate to anything else in space and time), and is rarely representative of the rest of the semester. However, there is a good reason for starting off on such seemingly shaky ground. Phonetics is the study of how human speech sounds are made (produced) and understood (perceived). These sounds are called phonemes, which are are the smallest unit of sound.
There are three branches of phonetics:
Acoustic phonetics is the study of the physical properties of sounds. Linguists use machines such as spectrograms and specialized computer programs to measure sound waves, or the ‘noise’ patterns of airflow in human speech. These acoustic ‘signals’ tell us much about how the vocal organs i.e., teeth, lips, tongue, etc. work together to form sounds. It is also possible to extract other information about the speaker such as physiological features or dialectal variation in a language.
Auditory phonetics examines factors affecting perception. For instance, why do certain speakers of a foreign language hear subtle differences in pronunciation whereas others don’t? Why is it that some native Spanish speakers have difficulty hearing the ‘z’ in an English word thus pronounce the ‘s’ in the word ‘music,’ as ‘s’ instead of ‘z?’ Speech therapists are concerned with human physiology in the perception process and study speech/perception disorders.
Articulatory phonetics is the study of how air flows through the vocal tract to create speech sounds, the study of articulation in terms of the physical gestures carried out in speech production.
The Faces of Phonetics
The study of the speech sound spans many language-related disciplines. A linguist studying phonetics may be primarily interested in the variation of articulation of /l/in American English when found at the beginning of a word, /lip/ ‘leap’ as opposed to at the end of a word /fiɫ/ ‘feel’. Linguists not only record and listen to these pronunciations but also measure the acoustic properties of /l/ in various phonological environments in order to gain a better understanding of how the latter affects the former.
The understanding of the production and perception of speech sounds is essential when studying second language acquisition. Many researchers examine the process of how an adult learns to perceive and produce new sounds in a target language in order to reduce accent and increase comprehension of spoken language.
Much can be learned about how sounds are produced and perceived by speakers of other languages. Sheldon and Strange (1982) conducted a study in which they examined the relationship between the production and perception of English liquids, /ɹ / and /l/, by native Japanese adults learning English. They found that Japanese subjects could pronounce the /ɹ / and /l/ better than they could hear the differences in the two phonemes. In their conclusion, they discuss the possibility that this could be due to acoustic factors.
The study of phonetics is essential in the areas of speech pathology an language disorders, lending insight into locating affected areas of the brain and devising successful treatment.
Here are the basic concepts in the study of phonetics that you will encounter.
The Vocal Tract
The vocal tract ‘houses’ the anatomy used in producing sounds. As air passes from the lungs through the vocal cords (the larynx), up into the pharynx, it exits via one of 3 cavities: the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, and the pharyngeal cavity, the latter which is generally not discussed at the introductory level. The oral cavity is composed of the space in the mouth and the articulators: passive (do not move during articulation) or active (move during articulation). Air is forced into the nasal cavity when the velum (soft palate) is lowered, closing off the oral cavity. This airflow travels through the nasal space, i.e., sinus cavities, and exits through the nostrils.
Click here for an image of the vocal tract.
Articulators modify airflow constriction, or the lack thereof. The level of constriction accounts for the level of sonority. The less constriction between articulators, the more sonorous a sound, and vice versa. Sounds are categorized according to the level of sonority.
Consonants have the greatest range of degrees of constriction and are described by where constriction occurs (place of articulation) and type of constriction (manner of articulation). They may also differ in voicing (whether or not the vocal cords vibrate while a sound is being produced).
Places of articulation (POA) describe where in the vocal tract active articulators move towards or away from passive articulators. Passive articulators include the upper lip and teeth, the alveolar ridge, the back of the alveolar ridge, the hard palate, the soft palate (velum), the uvula, the pharynx, and the epiglottis. Active articulators include the lower lips and different parts of the tongue.
Manners of articulation (MOA) describe the stricture or obstruction of airflow and include oral and nasal stops, fricatives, affricates, liquids, glides, and approximates.
The production of vowels involves no constriction of airflow and is described in terms of the position of the tongue in the mouth, i.e., height (high, mid, low) and backness (front, central, back). Other features of vowels are [+/- round] referring to the position of the lips, and [+/- nasal] which distinguishes the pathway of the airstream, i.e., through the nasal cavity [+nasal] or through the oral cavity [- nasal]. These are the most sonorous sounds of any language.
Practice: Phonetics: Vowel Sounds in Word Pairs
Glides are sounds that can show properties of either consonants or vowels and may be referred to as semi-vowels or semi-consonants depending on their position in a syllable. For example, in the word ‘yes’ the glide /j/ is the first sound thus fills the onset position in the syllable structure. Since there is a restriction permitting only consonants in in the onset, /j/ will take on consonantal features. However, in the word ‘boy’, the /j/ behaves like a vowel since it is the off-glide of the diphthong /ɔj/ and fills the nucleus of the syllable. Glides pattern after corresponding vowels. English: /j/ and /i/; /w/ and /u/.
It is very important to understand the concept that all phonemes are bundles of features or characteristics. These features are used to categorize similar sounds and distinguish those that differ from each other. Since no two phonemes can share identical features (or they would be the same) phonemes are marked with binary features (+) or (-). For example, a consonant will either be [+voice] or [-voice] (1); a vowel will be either ‘tense’ or ‘lax’ (2).
This table shows that the one feature that distinguishes /p/ from /b/ is [voice]. /p/ is [-voice] while /b/ is [+voice].
Here we see that that both /i/ and /ɪ/ are [+high] and [-back]. The one feature that distinguishes /i/ from /ɪ/ is ‘tense’ /i/ is tense while /ɪ/ is lax.
Spellings (especially in English) can be quite misleading. For instance, ‘gh’ represents the sound [f] in ‘enough’, and is silent in other words such as ‘though.’ So do yourself a favor and forget spelling/orthography. Become an expert at using the International or North American Phonetic Alphabets that provide standardized representations of the sounds of the world’s languages. Remember that spelling with letters or graphemes, and representing sounds with symbols are two totally different tasks. Don’t confuse them. For instance, the word ‘matches’ is often transcribed with /s/ at the end, instead of /z/ due to the influence of orthography. If you carefully sound out this word, you will actually hear a /z/ as the final sound: /mætʃ͡əz/. Or the word ‘lock’ may be transcribed with /o/ or /ɔ/ symbolizing the vowel sound when the correct symbol is /a/: /lak/. This is due to the fact that the orthography of the vowel sound is written with the grapheme ‘o’ which leads the transcriber to use /o/ to symbolize the sound. Once you are able to separate spelling from sound, you should be able to master most homework assignments dealing with transcriptions which will also be key in understanding patterns and relationships between groups of sounds further on in your studies.
For further explanation, check out our tutorial on Sounds and Spellings.
There are two levels of representation of sounds. The underlying representation is the abstract idea of what a speaker thinks s/he is articulating. These sounds are enclosed by back-slashes // giving the broad (basic, most simple) transcription.
The surface form is the actual articulation of sounds of which speakers are mostly unaware that they are producing. This form is enclosed with brackets [ ] and is referred to as the narrow transcription since more details are included.
For example, in Standard English, the underlying representation for the word ‘train’ will be transcribed as /tren/. However, the surface form is represented as [tʃɹejn], with the /t/ becoming palatalized by the /r/ thus articulated as an affricate [tʃ], the [ɹ] used to represent the rhotic approximate rather than [r], which is a trill seen in Spanish, and the /e/ surfacing as a diphthong [ej].
This is a lot of material to take in. However, if you become familiar with the three main areas mentioned above, you will be on your way to acing phonetics!
Make sure to take advantage of our many self-correcting exercises in phonetics!