This article touches on the many questions asked about phonetics, phonology and linguistics.
WHAT is phonetics? Phonetics is the study of speech sounds. There are three kinds of phonetics and they are (a) articulatory, (b) acoustic and (c) experimental. Setting aside the last category that involves waveform and psycho-acoustic tests, phonetics can be better defined as the study of articulation and acoustic phenomena that makes it possible to produce and perceive sounds.
The field of phonetics offers terms to categorise, any speech sound irrespective of the language.
What is Phonology? Phonology is the study of the sound systems of particular languages, particularly sound patterns. Although sometimes regarded as part of phonetics, phonology is usually classed as a separate study in linguistics.
Phonology develops general principles applicable to the sound systems of all languages and involves the study of both phonemes and prosody (stress, rhythm and intonation) as subsystems of spoken language.
What is Linguistics? Linguistics is the systematic study of language with a two-fold aim. It is to uncover general principles underlying human language and to provide reliable descriptions of human language. Within linguistics, are the specialist fields of phonetics and phonology that though related, embody different emphases.
It is through an understanding of phonetics, phonology and linguistics that learners can better reproduce and imitate sounds and address any factors affecting their pronunciation and spelling skills.
Moreover, they are able to enhance their phonetic coding and auditory discrimination abilities and gain an understanding of the regularities and irregularities in pronunciation and spelling rather than solely relying on memory.
These three “tools” reveal those characteristics relating to stress, intonation and rhythm and make sense of the “rules” applying to the correspondence between symbols and sounds, symbol combinations (clusters or composites) and sounds and the multi-sound values of certain symbols and combinations.
Having knowledge of these important language fields, speakers can address error factors that arise from the phonemic differences in a native language, e.g. the German “w”, and “v” and the Chinese “th”.
Speech sounds are produced when a stream of air is breathed out from the lungs, passing through the larynx into and through the pharynx, mouth and nose. Depending on whether the larynx vibrates, the sound produced may be “voiced” or “voiceless”.
Knowing how sounds are made assists a speaker to pronounce words accurately.
Different sounds are made using the organs of speech and the body’s physical system, e.g. diaphragm, lungs, throat, mouth, tongue, teeth, palate, nose and lips. This is demonstrated by changing the shape and size of the channel through which the air passes by moving the lips, the tongue and the lower jaw.
A vowel is made by changing the shape of the mouth thus widening the channel and allowing a free flow of air. In contrast, consonants are made by narrowing the channel and by restricting the airflow in some way. Unlike English, some languages produce speech sounds when air is inhaled.
Understanding how speech sounds are produced enables learners to appreciate the categories in which speech sounds are placed, e.g. dental, plosives, fricatives, glides, r-sounds, etc. Through Phonetics, one is able to distinguish and classify different speech sounds, the broadest categories being vowels and consonants. Another common classification approach is to divide sounds into voiced (or sharp) and voiceless (or unvoiced or whispered).
While there are only five regular vowel letters or symbols — a, e, i, o, u — there are over 20, vowel-related sounds, including the diphthong group. Similarly, while there are 21 consonant symbols, they can produce over 30 different sounds. It is through phonetics and the use of phonetic script that these sounds can be recognised and represented.
Speech sounds are classified according to the organs of speech used — the place of articulation within the human body — and how they are produced by particular organs of speech.
Some terms used to describe the different sounds come from the main point or place of articulation in the human body, e.g. bilabial — a sound made by bringing two lips together, i.e. “p”, “b”, “m”, labiodental - using the upper teeth (passive articulator) and the lower lip as the active articulator, i.e. “f”, “v”.
Other terms clearly depict how sounds are made, i.e. the manner of articulation, e.g. plosive — where a sound is released quickly, e.g. “p”, “b” - “t”, “d” - “k”, “g”. Another examples is glide — where it moves rapidly into the following vowel, e.g. “w”, “j”.
As a self-learning activity, use the Internet to find a diagram of the various organs and parts of the human body that are involved in the production of sounds in the English language.
They are the mouth, lips (bilabial), teeth (labiodental and interdental), alveolar ridge (palatal), palate, uvula, nasal cavity (nasal), tongue, velar, epiglottis, glottis (glottal), larynx (vocal chords), trachea and lungs.
*Keith Wright is the author and creator of the 4S Approach To Literacy and Language (4S) – a modern, innovative and proven method of accelerating the learning of English. The 4S methodology and the associated Accelerated English Programme (AEP) mentioned in this fortnightly column are now being used internationally to enhance the English proficiency of people with different competency levels. Exploring English By Keith W. Wright