Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Phonetics

We often reference the various fields of linguistics, so we thought we should finally take some time to briefly explain what each of them encompasses. In the coming weeks, we'll be discussing the main fields our new Intro to Linguistics series.

We'll be starting the series with phonetics. Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that studies the physical properties of speech sounds. In general, phoneticians don't focus on the meaning of the sounds, as that is considered a part of phonology, which we'll discuss next time. Instead, phonetics is all about the sounds you make, how you make them, and how they are received by a listener.


There are three basic areas of study in the field of phonetics. They include articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics, and auditory phonetics.

This kudu has ears made for
hearing all kinds of sounds!
Articulatory phonetics 

This is the study of how speech is produced. It focuses on the position, shape, and movement of your articulators, or speech organs, such as the lips, tongue, and vocal folds. If you're interested in seeing how the sounds in American English, German, or Spanish are articulated, then you should definitely check out this flash animation project by the University of Iowa, go Hawkeyes!

Acoustic phonetics 

Just as you might guess, this is the study of the transmission of speech from speaker to listener. It focuses on the properties of sound waves such as frequency, amplitude, and harmonic structure. This is where physics and linguistics overlap so if you're interested in both you should definitely consider further study into this field.

Auditory phonetics 

It's all about the reception of speech sounds by the listener through the use of the auditory system, or hearing. The recognition and categorization of sounds as well as the role of the brain in listening are also studied. It's basically where linguistics meets biology and psychology.

So how do linguists refer to these sounds when each language uses different symbols (such as letters) to represent the same sounds? They use the International Phonetic Alphabet (better known as the IPA) to transcribe the sounds, of course! Every last documented speech sound has its very own symbol.

The field of phonetics has many practical applications in everyday life. It plays a large part in speech recognition, which we've discussed in the past. More interestingly, forensic phonetics uses the science of speech for legal purposes. Forensic phoneticians are able to analyze audio samples and uncover information about a speaker's social and regional background, which could potentially help to locate a criminal suspect. They can also help to distinguish between different speakers, as well as assess whether or not something in a police transcription was misheard. Sometimes, a linguist can even be a better sleuth than a real detective!