introduction to phonetics

Speaking is such a normal part of our everyday life that we usually do not stop to think about what we are doing. It could be compared to walking: once you have learned how to do it, it becomes an automatic action that does not require conscious thought. If we had to think carefully about every single step it takes to produce speech, it would take us hours to form a single sentence. Luckily, there is no need for this, as long as we stick to our native language or dialect. However, if we would like to learn a new language or language variety, we could make good use of two linguistic branches: phonetics and phonology.

Phonetics and phonology differ from each other in the way that phonetics in the study of the physical aspect of human speech sounds, while phonology is more about the abstract. In this essay, I will go more into the basics of phonetics. Phonetics is divided into three categories: Articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics and auditory phonetics. Articulatory phonetics studies the production of speech sounds and deals with questions like “How do we create speech sounds? ”, “How does the production of one sound differ from that of another? and “What criteria can we use to distinguish different sorts of articulation? ”. Acoustic phonetics, on the other hand, investigates the physical properties of speech sounds. “What is the physical reality of a speech sound? ” and “How can we measure acoustic differences between speech sounds? ” are examples of questions that acoustic phonetics tries to answer. Finally, auditory phonetics concentrates on how the listener perceives and processes speech sounds. Speech sounds are created in the vocal tract.

Phoneticians have come up with names for the different parts in the vocal tract in order to make detailed descriptions of how a particular sound is made. These parts are called articulators, and they can be either passive or active, depending on if they can be moved or not. For example, we can move our lips and tongue while we cannot change the position of our upper teeth or hard palate. The vocal tract is also divided into two main cavities – the oral cavity and the nasal cavity – where the air can pass through in order to make the sounds.

Each sound has its own symbol that directly represents it in a one-to-one fashion. Unlike letters, which can stand for different sounds in different words, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) describes exactly how a word is pronounced. This is extremely helpful when learning a foreign language. If you are unsure about how to pronounce a certain word, you can simply look it up in the IPA. The IPA also distinguishes differences between varieties of a language. Consider the word ‘bath’. This word is pronounced differently in Standard British (RP) and General American English.

In RP, bath is pronounced [b??], but in American English, it’s pronounced [b??]. The names for the articulators along with the IPA help us determine and describe the place and manner of articulation. Place of articulation describes the point of closest constriction that happens in the vocal tract when we produce a sound. ‘Bilabial’ sounds like [b] and [p] involve both lips and ‘labio-dental’ sounds such as [f] and [v] involve the lower lip as well as the upper teeth. ‘Dental’ sounds are produced with the tongue close behind the upper front teeth, e. g. [d], or even between the upper and lower front teeth, producing [?].

Sounds such as [s] and [z], which are produced at the alveolar ridge, are described as ‘alveolar’. If the tongue is raised slightly further back, at the hard palate, they are referred to as ‘palatal’, e. g. [j]. ‘Velar’ sounds such as [k] or [g] are constructed at the velum. Finally, sounds that are produced at the glottis, for example [h], are described as ‘glottal’ sounds. Manner of articulation, on the other hand, specifies the way the airstream passes through the vocal tract. Two sounds can be produced at the same place of articulation but still sound different.

This is the result of stop and release of air as well as the vibrations of the vocal cords. ‘Stops’ or ‘plosives’ are produced when the airflow is stopped and followed by a burst of air, e. g. [b], [p] and [k]. If the airstream is continuous, but there is something aggravating it and therefore causing friction, we talk about a ‘fricative’ manner of articulation. [f], [s] and [h] are examples of fricatives. ‘Affricates’ such as [t?] and [d?] are combinations of a stop and a fricative. ‘Approximants’ are sounds where the articulators approach each other but the airstream can still pass without friction.

Approximants are divided into two groups: ‘liquids’ [l] and [?], and ’glides’ [w] and [j]. ‘Nasal’ sounds are different from the other sounds, because the airflow passes through the nose. [m], [n] and [?] are nasals. The last way to describe a sound is to find out if it’s ‘voiced’ or ‘voiceless’, that is, if the vocal cords vibrate or not when the sound is being produced. For example, both [s] and [z] are alveolar fricatives, but because [z] is voiced and [s] is not, we can distinguish them from one another. So far we have only discussed consonants. But what about vowels?

Vowels are classified according to ‘vowel frontness’ and ‘vowel height’, that is, the high-low and front-back relationship of the tongue at the moment of production of the sound. For example, when pronouncing [i:], the tongue is placed high up at the front of the mouth, making it a high front vowel. [?], on the other hand, is produced with the tongue low at the back of the mouth, making it a low back vowel. Moreover, vowels can be classified as ‘long’ or ‘short’, depending on the length of the vowel. A long vowel is followed by a colon (:) in the IPA. Another way to describe vowels is the muscular tension necessary for producing them. i:] and [u:] require stronger muscular tension than [?] or [?]. The former is therefore described as ’tense’, and the latter as ’lax’. Lastly, we can characterise vowels as ‘rounded’ or ‘unrounded’, depending on the position of the lips. [u:], [?] and [?:] are the only rounded vowels, the rest are unrounded. In my opinion, all these things are useful to know when learning a new language. Not all languages include the same sets of sounds, and therefore phonetics can help us distinguish and understand sounds, as well as how we should produce and pronounce them.

Although the labels and terms might sound difficult, they are actually very clear and informative, especially for teachers who want to describe these things to students who have problems with pronouncing foreign sounds. For example, [?] is a sound that does not exist in Finnish or Swedish, but is very frequent in English. Some people might have a hard time pronouncing words with this sound right and pronounce it as [t] instead. If they are taught that it is a voiceless dental fricative, they can practise and hopefully start using it right, until it becomes an automatic sound that does not require conscious thinking.

Language and communication is essentially a human need, and we want to be able to do it effortlessly. Just like breathing, our native language comes naturally. Phonetics is a device that will help us get to that level with foreign languages. Although it does not help us stay alive like breathing does, it certainly makes us feel alive, and that alone makes it phonetics worth looking into. List of


Plag, Ingo, Maria Braun, Sabine Lappe & Mareile Schramm. 2009. Introduction to English Linguistics: 2nd Revised Edition. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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