[weɫkəm tuː fənetɪks]


Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that focuses on the production and classification of the world’s speech sounds.  The production of speech looks at the interaction of different vocal organs, for example the lips, tongue and teeth, to produce particular sounds.  By classification of speech, we focus on the sorting of speech sounds into categories which can be seen in what is called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  The IPA is a framework that uses a single symbol to describe each distinct sound in the language and can be found in dictionaries and in textbooks worldwide. For example, the noun ‘fish’ has four letters, but the IPA presents this as three sounds: f i ʃ, where ‘ʃ’ stands for the ‘sh’ sound.

Phonetics as an interdisciplinary science has many applications. This includes its use in forensic investigations when trying to work out whose voice is behind a recording.  Another use is its role in language teaching and learning, either when learning a first language or when trying to learn a foreign language. This section of the website will look at some of the branches of phonetics as well as the transcription of speech and some history behind phonetics.

Phonetics Vs. Phonology – the key differences

Phonetics looks at the physical production of sounds, focusing on which vocal organs are interacting with each other and how close these vocal organs are in relation to one another. Phonetics also looks at the concept of voicing, occurring at the pair of muscles found in your voice box, also known as the Adam’s apple. If the vocal folds are vibrating, this creates voicing and any sound made in this way are called voiced sounds, for example “z”. If the vocal folds are not vibrating, this does not lead to voicing and creates a voiceless sound e.g., “s”. You can observe this yourself by placing two fingers upon your voice box and saying “z” and “s” repeatedly. You should feel vibrations against your finger when saying “z” but no vibrations when saying “s”.

Phonology however is associated more with the abstract properties of sounds, as it is about how these categories are stored in the mind. Phonetics also describes certain properties as being gradient such as voicing where we can compare the length of voicing between two sounds. For example, in French, [b] is voiced for longer than English [b]. In Phonology, these segments are simply defined categorically as being voiced or voiceless, regardless of these subtle differences.

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