By Kamil Wiśniewski July 12th, 2007
Phonetics is a multi-faceted branch of linguistics with a long history reaching ancient times. Nevertheless, even nowadays there are several opinions as to whether phonetics and phonology should be treated as two separate disciplines whose scope of interest overlap, or as one complex study having many different interests and methods of inquiry. Generally, it is said that phonetics deals with physical and physiological aspects of speech production, while phonology is more abstract and focuses on psychological and functional perspective. What is more, phonetics is also interested in how children learn the sounds of their first language, what can be done in cases of speech and hearing defects, how is speech perceived and produced. In addition to this, phonetics also deals with investigating ways of successful foreign language pronunciation teaching and designing means of speech synthesis. Therefore, with such a wide range of concerns phonetics has benefited from many seemingly unrelated scholarly disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, engineering as well as language teaching and stenography. As phonetics is interested in the way in which humans produce, transmit and receive speech it is, by and large, sub-divided according to the focus of investigations. Thus articulatory phonetics deals with the processes that take place in the vocal tract when humans produce speech sounds. So it takes into consideration the use of the vocal organs, muscle contractions, the airflow and pressure in the vocal tract, as well as intonation, phonation (modulations of the airstream), together with various manners of articulation – for instance, lets consider the pronunciation of the words ‚debt management ‚. The first word consists of three sounds in English: ‚d’ – plosive consonant, ‚e’ – short vowel, and ‚t’ – another plosive consonant. The three sounds combined together form the word debt /det/. The second is made up of eight sounds. The properties of each sound are analyzed by the articulatory phonetics. Accoustic phonetics studies the physical features of speech sounds as they are sent from mouth to ears. Acoustic phonetics, which deals only with human speech sounds, needs to be distinguished from instrumental phonetics which deals with the transmission of all types of sounds, by means of computers, telephones, microphones and other instruments. Because of the very nature of speech sounds, and the way they disperse in the air, it is difficult to analyse their properties without the use of the instruments mentioned above, therefore many methods of inquiry have been adopted. Auditory phonetics focuses on how speech sounds are perceived by the listeners, how they are heard and interpreted. As articulatory phonetics studies the speech sounds from the point of view of the speaker, auditory phonetics analyses them from the point of view of the listener. This branch of linguistics is, at least partially, based on the findings of such disciplines as anatomy and biology. Since it is the brain that humans use in order to interpret the perceived sounds auditory phonetics analyses also processes occurring in it while listening to speech. Apart from the main three branches of phonetics mentioned above there is also a relatively new sub-branch called forensic phonetics that deals with speaker identification for example. However, what is probably the most important achievement of phonetics from the point of view of an ordinary language learner is the description of speech sounds made by the native speakers. Thus, thanks to the linguists occupied with this science a thorough division of the English consonants and vowels together with the means of their production and different peculiarities have been accounted for, thus making the process of language learning much easier. As in the English language the writing system does not reflect the pronunciation of words a very useful tool for language learners is phonetic description. Phoneticians have created the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which shows the means and place of articulation of consonants and vowels that users of English as a mother tongue use. Many dictionaries published in the recent years have used the IPA to show how the English words ought to be pronounced. The following chart shows the complete IPA, therefore not all of the symbols shown there are used in the description of the English language.
For English the sounds described in the IPA refer to Received Pronunciation, and although different phonetic alphabets are also in use the IPA alphabet is most often used by linguists and publishers of recommended dictionaries.