Phonetics 101 #1

Dear all,

Now the time has come to talk about one of the courses I possibly  dislike the most. Phonetics is a part of my linguistic course but I can assure you that, even after 14 weeks, I still find it rather difficult to understand.
So to make it a little easier for myself and for anyone else who is interested in phonetics but thinks: What is this?! Do I feed it?
I’ll try to keep things as clear and basic as possible here in phonetics 101.
I will divide this subject into two parts as well to keep things clear.
The subjects are:

Part 1

  • Branches of phonetics
  • Basic concepts
  • Phonemes and allophones
  • The production of speech
  • Phonation

Part 2

  • Consonants
  • Vowels
  • Acoustic phonetics
  • Pitch, tone, intonation and connected speech

For this post I rely mostly on the information provided by my tutors and the book: Phonetics of English and Dutch by Beverly Collins and Inger M. Mees. If I use any other sources I’ll mention that in the text.

p.s. it is good to know that I use RP to do transcriptions if necessary.

Branches of phonetics

There are three branches of phonetics:

  1. Articulatory: is concerned with the movement of speech organs, or articulation, to form speech sounds.
  2. Acoustic: In concerned with the physical nature of speech sounds and how they are transmitted through the air as sound waves.
  3. Auditory: is concerned with the way in which the ear of the listener receives the speech signal.

This post will mostly deal with articulatory and acoustic phonetics but if you click here you will also find some information about auditory phonetics.

Basic concepts

Like everything else has a basis there’s also one for phonetics.
First of all it is good to know that phonetics is the study of the natural human language, that’s why it can be divided into three branches for research. The human language itself consists of speech sounds. Speech sounds are produced by humans with the intention to transmit information. The total number of speech sounds can differ per word, this completely depends on the word itself and the language it’s spoken in.

Some words can be homophone, homograph or homonym. The first means that a words sound the same as another word but has its own spelling, meaning and origin.
A homograph is a word spelled the same as another word but has a different meaning, origin and pronunciation.
A word is a homonym when that word sounds and is spelling the same as another word but has a different meaning and origin.

The smallest unit of speech that can be used to make one word different from another word is called a phoneme. A phoneme can be found by making a minimal pair, when a symbol or letter can change the meaning of a word like: boat and coat. B and C are both phonemes. Do keep in mind that phonemes are abstract and a concept. What does actually exist however are allophones. Allophones are phonetic realisations of a phoneme, making a phoneme a compound of a number of different sounds which are interpreted as one meaningful unit by a native speaker. The allophones of a different phoneme sound similar and are similarly produced.

With transcription it is important to distinct the brackets used to indicate spelling <>, phonemic transcription (pronunciation) // and phonetic transcription (indicated more detail then a phonemic transcription) [].
I.e. <moon> becomes /mu:n/, <noon> becomes /nu:n/ and <soon> becomes /su:n/. Symbols used for transcription are called graphemes.
When transcribing a passage make a distinction between the citation form and the connected speech form. The citation form is used in dictionaries and is always transcribed in strong forms (where every symbol is pronounced explicitly), using connected speech however some symbols might change and become a weak form. I.e: <and> in stressed form is /ænd/ but when used in connected speech can also take other forms like /∂n/ or even /∂m/, the last one I’ll explain later on in this post.  (more on strong and weak forms click here).
When there is a contracted form involved it only means that to separate words are put together to become one. < I am> can so become /aim/.

Now take a look at the chart below:

This is the phonemic alphabet used for transcription. As you can see there are vowels and consonants. Most symbols used for the phonemic transcription tend to be different from spelling when the vowels are concerned, though with most of the consonants the symbols resemble the spelling. There’s talk of voice and voiceless sounds, basically meaning that some consonants and all vowel are voiced and produce a vibration of the vocal folds when they are pronounced. If you want to test it you can touch your throat while pronouncing certain words, you will be able to tell the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

Another important point for transcription is the stress. A word in the citation form has at least one syllable with prominence, this is the stressed syllable (stress in an isolated word is called word stress). This means that the syllable stands out from those around it and is partly related to the energy. The indication mark for stress is [‘].
There is also stress in connected speech. Here not every word has the same degree of stress, some carry strong, others weak and some carry no stress at all. The stress in connected speech is called sentence stress.
Here is a tip: Usually stress occurs on so called lexical words (nouns, adjectives, adverbs and main verbs) while there is rarely any stress on grammatical words (determiners, conjunctions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions or degree adverbs such as quite or rather). The only sets of grammatical words that can be stressed are demonstratives and wh-interrogatives. In short: words with importance get stress, the rest not.

Here’s a website you can use for when you want more details.

Phonemes and allophones

It’s time for more fun with phonemes and allophones, are you ready? (I’m still considering my options here…)

Remember how I told you about the way to prove if a sound was a phoneme? You have to make a minimal pair, correct! If you’re eager to take this a step further, you can make a minimal set (meaning that you have to make four different words with only one sound difference). Making a minimal pair or a minimal set is easy enough. Let’s pick the word moon again. To make this into a minimal set I can choose to change the initial consonant (moon, noon, soon, boon), the vowel (in a minimal pair i.e. man and min) or the final sound (man, mat, map, mam).

An allophone is the phonetic realisation of a phoneme, a variant of the phoneme . Take [l] for example. There are three allophones of l: clear l (before /j/ and initial position), dark l (before a consonant or in final position) and voiceless l (after /p, k/ initial position). These allophones of l are in complimentary distribution, meaning that each of the realisations occur in their own position and one can’t be on the place of another. The realisations are confined to its own position.
When an allophone is contrastive it means that when one sound i.e clear l is in its assigned place, a word has a meaning. However when the dark l is put in that same place the meaning of the word changes.

The production of speech

For starters let’s say that sound is a vibration which carries through air and it needs a producer and, often, a receiver. Sound has different properties such as loudness, pitch (frequency) and shape (modification applied to the air).
The shape is modified by the following modifiers: the lungs, the larynx (adam’s apple) and the trachea (the wind pipe). The lungs are essential for the production of speech since they trap the air when you take air in (pulmonic ingressive airstream) and let the air out which produces sound (pulmonic egressive airstream).
If you look at the picture to the left you can see the inside of the larynx. The vocal folds produce vibration, voiced sounds like voiced consonants (I’ll return to this in the next post) and vowels (also returning next post). I will tell more about the vocal folds later on in this post. For now however it important to know that these vibrations are the basis for the basis for the production of speech. (down in the picture is the back of the larynx and the top of the picture is the front of the larynx. The cartilage can also be called arytenoid cartilage).

The vibrations (or lack of vibrations) are modified in the three cavities called the pharyngeal cavity, oral cavity and the nasal cavity.


This is a sagittal cross section of the supraglottal vocal tract (or simply a cross section of your head…). Here you can see the three cavities. In the upper right corner of the picture you can see the place of articulation (for example lips) and the adjective that you’ll need for later. For now it is good to know which adjectives belong to what place.
When one articulator is touching another (for example the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge) there is complete closure. In the case of my example the velum would be pressed against the pharynx, creating an oral stop. If the velum is not pressed back and the back of the tongue is pressed the velum then there would be a nasal stop. When the velum is pushed again the back(or up) it is called velic closure.
There is near-closure when for example the tip of the tongue is nearly touching the alveolar ridge, but not quite yet (alveolar fricative).
Keep in mind that vowels are produced somewhat different from consonants. When vowels are involved the articulators will be father apart. (I will continue on this in part 2).
If you are interested here is the link to a website that has an interactive sagittal section. You can choose voiced or voiceless sounds and so you are able to see where the tongue moves etc. If you click the link and you briefly the time you can see that when the sound produced is voiceless there is a straight line representing the vocal folds, when voiced the line is squiggly.  If there is a – sign instead of a straight line this means the same thing and if there is a + sign instead of a squiggly line this means the same as well.

If you look at the picture below you can see a picture of the tongue. This is one of the modifiers of the oral cavity:

Mind that the front and the back of the tongue are called the tongue-body. The adjectives belonging to the parts of the tongue are:

  • tip: apical
  • root: radical
  • body: dorsal
  • blade: laminal

Other modifiers that can shape the oral cavity to produce sounds are the lips, the position of the velum and the degree of opening/high or low jaw.


Phonation is the process by which speech sounds are produced when a part of the larynx modifies (or not) the airstream.

These are only four of the possible states of the glottis/larynx setting/types of phonation (all these terms mean the same). Another state is when the vocal folds are pressed together, creating a glottal stop. There is also a creaky voice, a case where there is a slight opening in the front plus voice. A breathy voice is like a whisper except with voice.
When there is a voiceless sound, the larynx is not active and is in a relaxed state.
Voice and voiceless can make a phonemic distinction, the meaning of a word can change if one uses a voiceless sound instead of a voiced sound. A glottal stop is only an allophonic variation and is used in RP before /p,t,k/. In some dialects these three can even be replaced by a glottal stop altogether. The symbol for a glottal stop is like a question mark [?]

The end… for now

Dear people this is the end for the first part of this topic about phonetics. There will be more in a few days! If you have any questions, feedback or something nice to say; don’t hesitate to comment!




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