What is Phonetics?


There are three types of the study of the sounds of language. Acoustic Phonetics is the study of the physical properties of sounds. Auditory Phonetics is the study of the way listeners perceive sounds. Articulatory Phonetics  is the study of how the vocal tracts produce the sounds. This article will only describe articulatory phonetics.

The orthography (spelling) of words in misleading, especially in English. One sound can be represented by several different combinations of letters. For example, all of the following words contain the same vowel sound: he, believe, Lee, Caesar, key, amoeba, loudly, machine, people, and sea. The following poem illustrates this fact of English humorously (note the pronunciation of the bold words):

I take it you already know of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Some may stumble, but not you, on hiccoughthoroughslough, and through?
So now you are ready, perhaps, to learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word, that looks like beard, but sounds like bird.
And dead, it's said like bed, not bead; for goodness' sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat. (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)
moth is not a moth in mother, nor both in botherbroth in brother.
And here is not a match for there, nor dear and fear, for bear and pear.
And then there's dose and rose and lose - just look them up - and goose and choose
And cork and work and card and ward and font and front and word and sword
And do and go, then thwart and cart, come, come! I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why man alive! I've learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried, I hadn't learned it at fifty-five.
- Author Unknown

The discrepancy between spelling and sounds led to the formation of the International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA.) The symbols used in this alphabet can be used to represent all sounds of all human languages. The following is the American English Phonetic alphabet. You might want to memorize all of these symbols, as most foreign language dictionaries use the IPA.

Phonetic Alphabet for English Pronunciation
p pill d dill h heal ʌ but
b bill n neal l leaf aj light
m mill s seal r reef ɔj boy
f feel z zeal j you ɪ bit
v veal chill w witch ɛ bet
θ thigh Jill i beet ʊ foot
ð thy ʍ which e bait ɔ awe
ʃ shill k kill u boot a bar
ʒ azure g gill o boat ə sofa
t till ŋ ring æ bat aw cow

Some speakers of English pronounce the words which and witch differently, but if you pronounce both words identically, just use w for both words. The sounds /ʌ/ and /ə/ are pronounced the same, but the former is used in stressed syllables, while the latter is used in unstressed syllables. This list does not even begin to include all of the phonetic symbols though. One other symbol is the glottal stop, ʔ which is somewhat rare in English. Some linguists in the United States traditionally use different symbols than the IPA symbols. These are listed below.

š ʃ
ž ʒ
U ʊ

The production of any speech sound involves the movement of air. Air is pushed through the lungs, larynx (vocal folds) and vocal tract (the oral and nasal cavities.) Sounds produced by using air from the lungs are called pulmonic sounds. If the air is pushed out, it is called egressive. If the air is sucked in, it is called ingressive. Sounds produced by ingressive airstreams are ejectives, implosives, and clicks. These sounds are common among African and Native American languages. The majority of languages in the world use pulmonic egressive airstream mechanisms, and I will present only these types of sounds in this lesson.

Consonants are produced as air from the lungs is pushed through the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords) and out the mouth. They are classified according to voicing, aspiration, nasal/oral sounds, places of articulation and manners of articulation. Voicing is whether the vocal folds vibrate or not. The sound /s/ is called voiceless because there is no vibration, and the sound /z/ is called voiced because the vocal folds do vibrate (you can feel on your neck if there is vibration.) Only three sounds in English have aspiration, the sounds /b/, /p/ and /t/. An extra puff of air is pushed out when these sounds begin a word or stressed syllable. Hold a piece of paper close to your mouth when saying the words pin and spin. You should notice extra air when you say pin. Aspiration is indicated in writing with a superscript h, as in /pʰ/. Nasal sounds are produced when the velum (the soft palate located in the back of the roof of the mouth) is lowered and air is passed through the nose and mouth. Oral sounds are produced when the velum is raised and air passes only through the mouth.

Places of Articulation
Bilabial: lips together
Labiodental: lower lip against front teeth
Interdental: tongue between teeth
Alveolar: tongue near alveolar ridge on roof of mouth (in between teeth
and hard palate)
Postalveolar: tongue towards soft palate
Palatal: tongue on hard palate
Velar: tongue near velum
Glottal: space between vocal folds

The following sound is not found in the English language, although it is common in languages such as French and Arabic:
Uvular: raise back of tongue to uvula (the appendage hanging down from the velum)

Manners of Articulation
Stop: obstruct airstream completely
Fricative: partial obstruction with friction
Affricate: stop airstream, then release
Approximants: partial obstruction, no friction, similar to vowels

You should practice saying the sounds of the English alphabet to see if you can identify the places of articulation in the mouth. The sounds are described by voicing, place, and then manner of articulation, so the sound /j/ would be called a voiced palatal glide and the sound /s/ would be called a voiceless alveolar fricative.

  Bilabial Labiodental Interdental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop / Plosive






Nasal (stop)



















Lateral Approximant      



For rows that have two consonants, the top consonant is voiceless and the bottom consonant is voiced. Nasal stops are all voiced, as are liquids. The sound /j/ is also voiced. If sounds are in two places on the chart, that means they can be pronounced either way.

Vowels are produced by a continuous airstream and all are voiced (at least in English - Japanese does have voiceless vowels, however). They are classified according to height of the tongue, part of tongue involved, and position of the lips. The tongue can be high, mid, or low; and the part of the tongue used can be front, central or back. Only four vowels are produced with rounded lips and only four vowels are considered tense instead of lax. The sound /a/ would be written as a low back lax unrounded vowel. Many languages also have vowels called diphthongs, a sequence of two sounds, vowel + glide. Examples in English include oy in boy and ow in cow. In addition, vowels can be nasalized when they occur before nasal consonants. A diacritic mark [~] is placed over the vowel to show this. The vowel sounds in bee and bean are considered different because the sound in bean is nasalized.

    Part of Tongue
    Front Central Back
High / Close








Low / Open




The bold vowels are tense, and the italic vowels are rounded. English also includes the diphthongs: [aj] as in bite, [aw] as in cow, and [oj] as in boy. These diphthongs can also be transcribed as [aɪ], [aʊ], and [ɔɪ].

For a full IPA chart with integrated sound, please visit this International Phonetic Alphabet site. If you're looking for a way to type IPA symbols online, please visit ipa.typeit.org

Major Classes of Sounds (Distinctive Features)
All of the classes of sounds described above can be put into more general classes that include the patterning of sounds in the world's languages. Continuant sounds indicate a continuous airflow, while non-continuant sounds indicate total obstruction of the airstream. Obstruent sounds do not allow air to escape through the nose, while sonorant sounds have a relatively free airflow through the mouth or nose. The following table summarizes this information:

  Obstruent Sonorant
Continuant fricatives liquids, glides, vowels
Non-Continuant oral stops, affricates nasal stops

Major Class Features
[+ Consonantal] consonants
[- Consonantal] vowels

[+Sonorant] nasals, liquids, glides, vowels
[- Sonorant] stops, fricatives, affricates (obstruents)

[+ Approximant] glides [j, w]
[- Approximant] everything else

Voice Features
[+ Voice] voiced
[- Voice] voiceless

[+ Spread Glottis] aspirated [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ]
[- Spread Glottis] unaspirated

[+ Constricted Glottis] ejectives, implosives
[- Constricted Glottis] everything else

Manner Features
[+ Continuant] fricatives [f, v, s, z, š, ž, θ, ð]
[- Continuant] stops [p, b, t, d, k, g, ʔ]

[+ Nasal] nasal consonants [m, n, ŋ]
[- Nasal] all oral consonants

[+ Lateral] [l]
[- Lateral] [r]

[+ Delayed Release] affricates [č, ǰ]
[- Delayed Release] stops [p, b, t, d, k, g, ʔ]

[+ Strident] “noisy” fricatives [f, v, s, z, š, ž]
[- Strident] [?, ð, h]

Place Features
[Labial] involves lips [f, v, p, b, w]

[Coronal] alveolar ridge to palate [θ, ð, s, z, t, d, š, ž, n, r, l]
[+ Anterior] interdentals and true alveolars
[- Anterior] retroflex and palatals [š, ž, č, ǰ, j]

[Dorsal] from velum back [k, g, ŋ]

[Glottal] in larynx [h, ʔ]

Height [± high] [± low]
Backness [± back]
Lip Rounding [± round]
Tenseness [± tense]



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