Terminology: Phones and Phonetics

You’ve probably seen a misspelling like *<enuf> for <enough> and have seen someone write that * <enuf> is a phonetic spelling. That is a misnomer, because English spelling is not phonetic. Writing systems are phonological — they represent meaning to people who already know and speak the language. 

But phonetics can be a useful aspect of language to study, and therefore it’s critical to define it accurately; phonetics is the study of the physical aspects of speech production and reception — the articulation and physical production of speech. It is the study of auditory signals that are unique and concrete, without consideration for meaning.

Phonetics can be measured with instruments.

When we talk about phonetics, we are dealing with phones, which are the smallest distinct unit of speech, without regard to meaning.  Phones have to do with physical production of sound (articulation) and physical reception of sound (hearing). Phones exist in our mouths and ears and in sound waves passing through the air.

When we talk about phones and we want to write down a representation of a spoken phone, we use square brackets [ ]. Inside those brackets we place International Phonetic Association symbols (IPA). IPA symbols represent aspects of physical articulation and each symbol represents a specific segment of speech; they can be used to talk about those segments of speech very precisely. When IPA symbols are used to represent the pronunciation of a word, a speaker of any language who knows IPA would know exactly what that pronunciation represents and could theoretically reproduce that pronunciation even if they don’t know the language. IPA symbols inside of square brackets are representing phones, which are generally very concrete.

For example, the phone [p] is a segment of speech that can be described using aspects of physical articulation. [p] is a voiceless, bilabial plosive. Voiceless means that we do not use our vocal tract to articulate this phone. If it were voiced, it would actually be the phone [b].

You can feel voicing by placing your two hands on the sides of your neck and then articulate just the [p] at the beginning of the word “pot.” Then change that to a [b] as you would articulate at the beginning of the word “bat.” You should feel your throat vibrate as you articulate [b], but not when you articulate [p]. [b] is voiced; [p] is voiceless, or unvoiced. Another way to feel this is to place your hands tightly over your ears and notice the difference when you articulate [p] and [b].

Both of these phones are “bilabial” (<bi + labi + al>) where this <bi> has a sense of “two” and <labi> refer to “lips.”  Bilabial refers to an articulation that starts with both lips together. A “plosive” (<plose/ + ive>) means that we force air against those two closed lips from inside the mouth, and then there is an explosive release of that air to create the articulation.

And phonetic transcription can be made more precise by the addition of diacritical marks. For example, [pʰɪn] is used for the pronunciation of <pin> where the superscript <h> after the [p] represents the aspiration (puff of air) we notice when pronouncing <pin>. We don’t experience that same aspiration in [spɪn], the pronunciation of <spin>.  You can feel the difference by putting your hand in front of your mouth as you pronounce <pin> and <spin> and compare those [p]’s. I’m not using that level of precision in this discussion (in part because I’d be skating at the edge of my own understanding!)  But that may change as I revise this.

IPA is used when talking about both phonetics and phonology. Phonology is the study of segments of human speech that carry meaning. When we talk about phonology, we are dealing with phonemes.  The distinction between phonology and phonetics is critical, and is often very poorly understood.  You can read more about phonology and phonemes here.

Notice that the / /ʧ / at the beginning of the word “chip” is one phoneme — one unit — that is distinctive for meaning in English. We could indicate the phonetics of that pronunciation using the same IPA symbols inside of square brackets [ tʃ ]. Now we are simply dealing with physical articulation. And notice that there are symbols for two phones inside of these brackets. When we pronounce the phoneme / ʧ /, we combine two phones: [ t ] as we find at the end of “pot” and [ ʃ ] as at the beginning of the word “ship.” Say “cat ship” quickly. See what you notice.

If we use the term “sound” when talking about spoken language, and particularly when talking about phonemes, it’s very confusing to students and also clouds our own thinking. The word “sound” is imprecise. A phone is the smallest part of speech that can be isolated, not a phoneme, so the smallest “sound” in a word could easily be a phone rather than a phoneme.

So when we are thinking about phonetics, here are a few key points to remember:

  • Phonetics is the study of the physical aspects of speech production and reception.
  • Phonetics involves the study of phones — the smallest distinct unit of speech, without regard to meaning.
  • No writing system is phonetic. All writing systems represent meaning, not physical articulation.

You can learn about phonetics and phonology by studying with LEX: Linguist~Educator Exchange. The Nature of the Phoneme series of LEXinars is where I learned most of what I know about the subject (although all errors here are mine!)

 You can start by reading a blog post called Hatchet Crazy. 

One of the reasons that I call this site Learning About Spelling is because that’s what I’m doing as I write this. Every single day I learn something new about our writing system and replace aspects of my old thinking with new. This is my current understanding and I welcome questions and responses. I’ll edit this as my understanding grows and changes.

Please contact me here with your questions, comments, and reactions.