Help:A Guide to Phonetics

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A Guide to Understanding Phonology, Phonetic Descriptions and the International Phonetic Alphabet

An Introduction to Phonology

Where phonetics is the overall study of sound production and perception in linguistics, phonology is the series of sounds employed by a specific language. The phoneme is the most fundamental meaningful component in a language. If one phoneme is swapped for another in a given word, the result is a change in that word’s meaning. Two words that compare in their difference by a single phoneme are known as a minimal pair. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a phonetic alphabet designed to represent meaningful sounds of any language at a detailed level. Phonemes are represented by using symbols from the IPA in between a pair of slashes (//).

Examples of minimal pairs in English:

  • pat /pæt/ vs bat /bæt/
  • sin /sɪn/ vs sing /sɪŋ/
  • ring /ɹɪŋ/ vs wrong /ɹɒŋ/

Where a phoneme is somewhat of a generalised phonetic representation, a phone is a very specific sound which we represent using a wider range of IPA symbols in between a pair of square brackets ([]). While each phoneme is the most basic unit of meaning in a language, it can be broken up further into a set of allophones. Allophones are phones that are unique to a specific phoneme. Instead of changing a word’s meaning, an allophone is an alteration in how a phoneme is pronounced in specific phonetic environments. The difference could be how a phoneme is pronounced at the beginning of a word, word initial position, in the middle of a word, word medial position, or at the end of a word, word final position. Other phonetic environments might be based on the influence of a neighbouring phoneme.

  • top /tɒp/ [tʰɒp] vs stop /stɒp/ [stɒp]

[tʰ] represents a phone with an aspiration quality, a strong release of breath following the consonant. [t] is the unaspirated variant. The phoneme /t/ changes its phonetic quality between these two variants based on different phonetic environments as seen in the example. These two variants are both considered to be allophones of /t/ as they do not cause any change in meaning of a word.

Native speakers of a phonology often do not recognise phonetic distinctions between contrasting allophones of the same phoneme. Conversely, this can often be a distinction that foreign speakers may immediately recognise, contributing to the native speaker’s “accent”. Likewise, to the native, the foreign speaker will appear to also have an “accent” while speaking the native’s language, as the foreign speaker will often employ pronunciations based on their own native language’s phonology.

In phonetics, there are no such things as “accents”, only phonologies. Without taking a native’s phonology into consideration while attempting to speak their language, the native may experience a lot of difficulty in understanding a foreign speaker due to the differences in sound distinctions being employed by the foreign speaker. Again, these sound distinctions being employed will be based on the foreign speaker’s language’s phonology. With this information, we can now understand why a language’s phonology is important, as it is the most fundamental property of meaningful language.

All languages (and dialects) have their own phonologies. A phonology system can be divided between vowels and consonants. All languages naturally tend to have a regularised series of phonemes with contrasting qualities.

For vowels, this could mean that where one might find a vowel pronounced towards the front of the mouth, one could reasonably expect to find a contrasting vowel towards the back of the mouth in a language’s phonology. This can be referred to as a vowel’s backness.

  • sing /sɪŋ/ vs sung /sʌŋ/

Likewise, the tongue can move into a higher or lower position for contrasting vowels, respectively referred to as close (or high) and open (or low) positions. This can be referred to as a vowel’s height.

  • sing /sɪŋ/ vs song /sɒŋ/

The shape that the lips make can also be used to make meaningful distinctions between vowels. A vowel can either be rounded or unrounded based on whether the lips have a rounded shape or are spread. This can be referred to as a vowel’s roundedness.

  • sin /sɪn/ vs soon /suːn/

Finally, distinction can be determined by vowel length using the IPA symbol (ː), which is not the same as a colon symbol. While this vowel quality is present in English pronunciation, vowel length, beyond some dialectal pronunciations, is not used as a contrasting quality in the English language. Similarly, other language phonologies may not make distinction between vowel backness, height or roundedness in contrasting sets. Each language will employ its own method to contrast between different sets of phonemes.

Combining all of these qualities, useful phonetic descriptions can be paired with IPA symbols for written representation, known as phonetic transcriptions:

  • [uː] can be described as a long close back rounded vowel

In practice, phonetic descriptions may only apply to phones and never phonemes, since phonemes can consist of multiple allophones with a range of phonetic descriptions. An allophone’s phonetic description is often referred to as a realisation of its phoneme.

With this knowledge, we can begin to understand the purpose of IPA symbols and we can even construct our own phonetic descriptions for which we can then search for the matching symbols.

Index of Terminology

  • allophone
  • aspirated (consonant)
  • back (vowel)
  • backness (vowel)
  • close (vowel)
  • consonant
  • front (vowel)
  • height (vowel)
  • high (vowel)
  • International Phonetic Alphabet
  • length (vowel)
  • low (vowel)
  • minimal pair
  • open (vowel)
  • phone
  • phoneme
  • phonetic description
  • phonetic transcription
  • phonetics
  • phonology
  • realisation
  • rounded (vowel)
  • roundedness (vowel)
  • unaspirated (consonant)
  • unrounded (vowel)
  • vowel
  • word final position
  • word initial position
  • word medial position