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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2018

2 - Phonetics



Phonetics describes the sounds and melodies of the spoken word – how they are made (articulatory phonetics), their physical reality (acoustic phonetics) and how they are perceived (speech perception). Articulatory phonetics is a long-established discipline and the rudiments of general phonetic theory are relatively uncontentious. Phonetics impacts on many areas of linguistics including morphology (e.g. English plural and past tense endings), syntax (e.g. distinguishing between certain word classes, statements and questions), semantics (e.g. homographs, homophones) and pragmatics (e.g. context-sensitive intonational focus), also sociolinguistics (e.g. regional accents, styles of speech), psycholinguistics (e.g. speech errors, speech perception) and so forth. It makes sense, therefore, for students of language and linguistics to know something about the nature of the spoken word. Accordingly, against a background of examples drawn mainly (but not exclusively) from English, this chapter summarizes speech sound production, demonstrates key features in the speech waveform and in spectrograms, looks briefly at types of transcription, and introduces the contributions made by tone and intonation.


The interconnected combination of mouth, throat and lungs is the vocal tract. The ‘power’ for speech is supplied by a stream of air from the lungs. To speak, we make deliberate movements of our throats and mouths (particularly the tongue and/or the lips) which act on the moving airstream to alter the way it flows. All speech sounds involve some kind of narrowing or approximation between active and passive organs in the vocal tract – the active/moveable tongue tip, for example, rising to touch the passive/immovable upper front teeth. This chapter aims to explain the nature of such gestures.

Phonetics is also inextricably linked with phonology (sometimes called linguistic phonetics). Phonology tells us which particular sounds are used with significance in the speech of different languages, contributing to the meanings of words – for example, ‘s’ and ‘z’ are different sounds in English (represented in phonetic transcription as [s] and [z]) and distinguish word pairs like bus~buzz, Sue~zoo, racer~razor. Phonetics, however, tells us exactly how each sound is produced and about their physical characteristics. Phonology tells us that English also contrasts [ʃ] (e.g. in sheep or mission) and [ʒ] (in vision). Again, notice how the phonetic transcription of sounds isn't always like the spelling letters.

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Exploring Language and Linguistics
  • Online ISBN: 9781139548922
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Ashby, P. (2005). Speech Sounds, London: Routledge. This is a short, easy-to-read introduction to the basics of articulatory phonetics with plenty of in-text exercises (with answers) for further practice. Speech Sounds also briefly considers applications of phonetics in the workplace.
Ashby, M. and Maidment, J. (2005). Introducing Phonetic Science. Cambridge University Press. This book approaches phonetics from the acoustic viewpoint, introducing instrumental techniques for analysing speech. The book also covers the hearing mechanism and speech perception, linguistic universals relevant to phonetics and basic phonological (linguistic phonetic) concepts. The text is supported by plenty of practical exercises and has a companion website.
Cruttenden, A. (2014). Gimson's Pronunciation of English, London: Hodder Education. This book offers a detailed, in-depth study of the phonetics of English. As well as giving a general phonetic background and a sound-by-sound account, the book looks at the history of English sounds and aspects of connected speech including the stress, intonation and syllable structure. It offers a substantial final chapter on the teaching and learning of English as an additional language and the role of pronunciation.
IPA (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge University Press.
Laver, J. (1994). The Phonetic Description of Voice Quality. Cambridge University Press.
Tingsabadh, M. R. K. and Abramson, A. S. (1993). Thai. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 23(1), 24–8.
Wells, J. C. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. C. (2008). Pronunciation Dictionary, London: Longman.