Unit outline

Unit objectives


Phonetics and phonology


The connection of phonetics and phonology with non-linguistic and linguistic sciences


The importance of phonetic studies


Phonetic symbols and types of transcription


Types of standard pronunciation

Received Pronunciation

General American


Key concepts

Further reading

Answers to SAQs

After you have completed the study of this unit you should be able to:
  • define phonetics
  • e

    Unit objectives
    xplain the connection of phonetics with other branches of science
  • point out the importance of phonetics for a teacher of a foreign language
  • recognize the symbols used for teaching the pronunciation of English
  • identify the main type of English standard pronunciation.

    1. Phonetics and phonology

  • Definition of phonetics
Phonetics is the science which studies the sounds used in speech and provides methods for their description, classification and transcription*. (Crystal D., 1992: 259).
Speech sounds* can be analysed from several points of view:
a. acoustic
b. articulatory
c. auditory
d. functional.

  • Types of phonetics
a. The acoustic aspect falls under the scope of what is commonly called acoustic phonetics* which studies the physical (acoustic) properties of speech sounds as transmitted between the mouth and the ear.
b. The articulatory aspect of speech sound is analysed by the branch called articulatory phonetics which deals with speech sounds from the point of view of their production, i.e. what organs are used to produce them and what precise movements they perform in order to articulate them.
c. Auditory phonetics* studies speech sounds from the point of view of their perception, i.e. the perceptual response to speech sounds as mediated by the ear, the auditory nerve and the brain.
d. Functional phonetics or phonology investigates the functional aspect of sounds, accent*, syllable and intonation.

  • Definition of phonology
While phonetics studies speech sounds as sounds, in all their complexity and diversity, independent of their role in language, phonology studies speech sounds, as these are categorised by speakers of a given language; its study unit is called phoneme. The actually pronounced speech sounds are called variants or allophones* of phonemes.
In standard British English, there are 44 different categories of speech sounds called phonemes. Phonemes are said to differ from each other in terms of certain distinctive features* such as voice, nasality, etc. Phonologists study both phonemes (vowels* and consonants*) and prosody* (stress and intonation) as subsystems of a spoken language.
  • Branches of phonology
The study of speech into distinctive units or phonemes is called segmental* phonology, whereas the analysis of prosodic and paralinguistic features in connected utterances of speech is called non-segmental/suprasegmental phonology*.


In the spaces provided, mention which branch of phonetics is concerned with the following:
a. the perception of the sounds and their interpretation in the receiver ….
b. the physical (acoustic) properties of speech sounds ….
c. the functional aspects of sounds …..
d. the activity involved in the production of speech sounds …

Check your answers against those given in the Answer Key.

1.2 The connection of phonetics and phonology with non-linguistic and linguistic sciences

  • The connection with grammar
Phonetics is connected with non-linguistic sciences such as anatomy, acoustics and physiology. For example, sounds can be described with reference to anatomical places of articulation (dental*, palatal*), to their physical structure (the frequency and amplitude characteristics of the sound waves) and are articulated by our organs of speech.
Phonetics is connected with grammar because, through the system or reading rules, it helps to pronounce the singular and plural forms of nouns correctly, the singular third form of verbs, the past tense forms and past participles of English regular verbs.
The study of the phonological, i.e. sound structure of morphemes is called morphophonology*. In many languages, English included, there are phonological rules which can only be described with reference to morphological structure. Thus, the morpheme ‘s’ can be pronounced /iz/ (e.g. peaches, judges), /z/ (e.g. apples, rides) or /s/ (e.g. maps, lacks) depending on the final consonant* of the base form of the verb to which it is attached.

Think first!

Give some examples of the phonetic variation morphemes undergo in combination with one another (e.g. hoof - hooves, half - halves).

In the next paragraph you will find more examples of this kind.

One of the most important phonetic phenomena - sound interchange - is another manifestation of the connection of phonetics with grammar. For instance, this connection can be noticed in the category of NUMBER. Thus, the interchange / f-v /, /s-z /, /ð/ helps to distinguish singular and plural forms of such nouns as: calf-calves, house - houses, mouth - mouths, etc.
Vowel interchange helps to discriminate the singular and the plural of nouns of foreign origin: basis - bases / ‘beisis - beisi:z / and also of irregular nouns such as man - men /mæn - men/.
Vowel interchange is connected with the TENSE forms of irregular verbs, for instance: sing - sang - sung.

  • Lexicology, semantics, stylistics and pragmatics
Phonetics is also connected with lexicology and semantics. Homographs* can be differentiated only due to pronunciation because they are identical in spelling:
bow /bəu/ - bow /bau/
lead /li:d / - lead /led/
row /rəu/ - row /rau/
tear /teə/ - tear /tiə/
wind /wind / - wind /waind/
Phonetics is connected with stylistics through repetition of words, phrases and sounds, lying at the basis of rhyme, alliteration*, etc.
The connection with the other linguistic branches (i.e. semantics, pragmatics) is obvious due the role played by accent, stress and intonation in the act of communication. For example, the position of word accent in units higher than a word may have far - reaching semantic consequences. If we consider compounds such as blackbird, yellow-hammer, blue-stocking, cheap-jack (in which the stress falls on the first syllable) and phrases containing apparently the same words blackbird, yellowhammer, bluestocking, cheapjack (in which the stress falls on the second syllable) we notice that the difference in stress engenders differences in meaning.


Which non-linguistic and linguistic sciences are connected with phonetics? Fill in the blanks with the corresponding term.

  1. Since speech sounds are articulated by our organs of speech, phonetics is connected with......................
  2. Since the sounds are transmitted in the form of sound waves, phonetics is connected with …………………...
  3. Since some sounds can be described with reference to anatomical places of articulation, phonetics is connected with …………………..…
  4. The connection between phonetics and ……………………… can be proved by the different pronunciations of the grammatical morphemes -s and –ed.
  5. Homography is a study area common to both phonetics and ………………………..
  6. The close interrelationship between phonetics and ….………………….….. can be seen in commands and requests that are distinguished by means of intonation patterns.
  7. When phrases coincide with compounds, the semantic difference is made by means of stress, an issue studied by ……………………….. phonetics or phonology.

The answer is given at the end of this unit.

    1. The importance of phonetic studies

Think First!

Before reading the next section, think of the importance of phonetics for the foreign language teacher and write down your ideas in the space provided below. Your answer should not be longer than two paragraphs.

You will find some ideas as you read this section.

The connection of phonetics with linguistic sciences (grammar, lexicology, stylistics, semantics and pragmatics) points to its importance from both a theoretical and a practical point of view. Theoretically, a complete understanding and description of a language is not possible without a description of its sound structure and system. For instance, the loss of inflections in English is a grammatical phenomenon which has phonetic causes, i.e. the strong dynamic stress on the first syllable of words resulted in the reduction, weakening and loss of the final unstressed syllable.
Practically, knowledge of phonetics is indispensable in the study and teaching of foreign languages. The teacher and the learner of a foreign language should ideally be able to recognize and produce the sounds of the studied language just like a native speaker.

1.4 Phonetic symbols and types of transcription

  • The International Phonetic Alphabet
To describe the sounds of English (or of any other language) one cannot depend on the spelling of the words. The most accurate method of representing sounds is through the International Phonetic Alphabet* (IPA) developed by the International Phonetic Association in 1888; this can be used to symbolize the sounds found in all languages.
The symbols are based on the Roman alphabet, with further symbols created by inverting or reversing Roman letters or taken from the Greek alphabet. The main characters are supplemented when necessary by diacritics.
The International Phonetic Alphabet is less used in North America than elsewhere, but it is widely used as a pronunciation aid for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language), especially by British publishers and increasingly in British dictionaries of English.

  • The broad/phonemic/phonological transcription
When the sounds of a language are represented without going into any details about variations, the method of broad/phonemic/phonological transcription is used. For example, in English, the /t/ phoneme is represented by this symbol in all situations, regardless of the fact that the phoneme is realized by various allophones, e.g. being aspirated* in a stressed initial position (time) and unaspirated* after –s (stay), and ignoring also the fact that it may not always have alveolar* articulation.
A broad phonemic transcription is generally felt to be simplest to use, but knowledge of the allophonic systems of the language is needed if such a transcription is to be read aloud, with approximate accuracy.
        • The narrow/allophonic/phonetic transcription
Variations may be represented by what is known as narrow//phonetic/allophonic i.e. a transcription which mirrors all that is known about a sound in a given environment.
The large number of diacritics makes it possible to mark minute shades of sound.
Conventionally, the narrow transcription* is given between square brackets, while the broad transcription* uses slashes (slant lines).

Think first!

Look at the table below and consider the difference in number between the phonemes of English and those of Romanian. Which sounds do you think are found in English but not in Romanian?


You can find such instances if you read the next section.

  • The English phonemic system
According to traditional phonological theories, the minimal unit in the sound system* of a language is the phoneme. Each language operates with a relatively small number of phonemes (Japanese has about 20 phonemes, Romanian has 29 and English has 44); no two languages have the same phonemic system. The English phonemic system contains 24 consonants* and 20 vowels, while Romanian has 22 consonants and 7 vowels.
The symbols used for teaching the pronunciation of English are the following:

Symbols Examples
Symbols for vowels and diphthongs


Symbols for consonants


What terms correspond to the following definitions? Write your answers in the spaces provided below.

1. A systematic method of representing in a rather general way (normally using the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet) how spoken language sounds.
2. A system of written symbols designed to enable the speech sounds* of any language to be consistently represented.
3. A method which gives a much more accurate indication of actual speech sounds but requires more symbols and diacritics.

The answer is given at the end of this unit.

1.5 Types of standard pronunciation

1.5.1 Received Pronunciation* (RP)

  • Definition
RP is the name for the accent generally associated with educated British English and used as the pronunciation model for teaching it to foreign learners.

  • Origin
Received Pronunciation originates from the prestige accent of the Court, well established in England by the 17th century. During the First World War, Daniel Jones (1917) called it PSP (Public School Pronunciation) because it was most usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons who had been educated at the great public boarding-schools.

  • Who uses RP?
RP is the pronunciation used by national announcers and presenters on the BBC since its founding in the 1920s because it was the form of pronunciation most likely to be nationally understood and to attract least regional criticism – hence the association of RP with the phrase BBC English*.
        • Is RP still popular on radio and television?
However in the 1970s-1980s there has been a move towards modified regional accent among announcers and presenters and towards distinct (but generally modified) regional accents among presenters on popular radio channels and meteorologists and sports commentators on television. In spite of the regionally marked forms of accent that can be heard on some channels, RP remains the reference norm that is used for the descriptions of other varieties of English.

  • Why are there differences in pronunciation?
Differences in pronunciation result from various factors such geographical origin, one’s age and sex, social class, educational background, occupation and personality. In addition, Roach (1994: 190) mentions situation factors such as the social relationship between speaker and hearer, whether one is speaking publicly or privately and the purposes for which one is using language.

  • RP and EFL teaching
RP is the accent that foreign learners of English are expected to learn for the sake of convenience and simplicity; learners of English need to be aware of the fact that this style/accent/variety is far from being the only one they can meet. In practice, EFL teachers should do their best to expose their pupils to other varieties. Actually, in EFL teaching RP competes more and more with GA (General American*).

1.5.2 General American (GA)

  • Definition
An accent of English used in the United States that lacks the especially marked regional characteristics of the north-east (New England, New York State) and the south-east (the ‘Southern States’).
As a concept, GA corresponds to the layman’s perception of an American accent without marked regional characteristics. It is sometimes referred to as “Network English” being the variety most acceptable on the television networks covering the whole United States. (Wells, 1981: 471).


This unit has introduced some major issues meant to underline the idea that an understanding of the principles of phonetics is a necessary basis for the study of other branches of linguistics, in the sense that many language phenomena can be explained only in terms of phonetics. Therefore, phonetics is equally necessary in the theoretical and practical study of language.
The difference between phonemes and allophones or in other words, between phonology and phonetics is so important that we also note this difference in transcription: phonetic (or narrow transcription) for which we use square brackets and phonological (phonemic, broad transcription) for which we use slashes.
Phonemic variants or allophones are very important for language learning and language teaching because they are pronounced in actual speech and though their mispronunciation does not influence the meaning of the words, their misuse makes a person’ s speech sound “foreign”.
Because spelling is not a faithful representation of language, it is useful to have a set of special symbols whose values are generally agreed upon. This is the function of the phonetic symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet.
English is the national language in many countries, including the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zeeland, and South Africa. There are great differences in the pronunciation of English in these countries and even within the same country one may hear different pronunciations. From this variety of pronunciations, for practical purposes, it has been necessary to choose those which are best suited for learning and using English, i.e. Received Pronunciation and General American.

Key concepts

The following key concepts have been introduced in this unit. Use this list and others found at the end of each chapter as a checklist to make sure that you are familiar with each before going on.

  • acoustic phonetics
  • allophone
  • articulatory phonetics
  • auditory phonetics
  • broad transcription
  • functional phonetics or phonology
  • General American
  • morphophonology
  • narrow transcription
  • phoneme
  • phonemic system
  • Received Pronunciation
  • segmental phonology
  • suprasegmental phonology
  • the International Phonetic Alphabet

Further reading

      1. Finch, Geoffrey. 2000. Linguistic Terms and Concepts. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 33-77.
      2. Roach, Peter. 1994. English Phonetics and Phonology. A Practical Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-47.

Answers to SAQs

If your answer to SAQ 1 is not comparable to the one suggested below, please reread section 1.1.


  1. auditory phonetics
  2. acoustic phonetics
  3. functional acoustics or phonology
  4. articulatory phonetics

If your answer to SAQ 2 is not comparable to the one suggested below, please reread section 1.2.


  1. physiology
  2. physics
  3. anatomy
  4. grammar
  5. lexicology
  6. pragmatics
  7. functional phonetics or phonology

If your answer to SAQ 3 is not comparable to the one suggested below, please reread section 1.4.


1. broad transcription
2. the International Phonetic Alphabet
3. narrow transcription