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phonetics (fōnĕtˈĭks, fə–), study of the sounds of languages from three basic points of view. Phonetics studies speech sounds according to their production in the vocal organs (articulatory phonetics), their physical properties (acoustic phonetics), or their effect on the ear (auditory phonetics). All phonetics are interrelated, since human articulatory and auditory mechanisms correspond to each other and are mediated by wavelength, pitch, and the other physical properties of sound. Systems of phonetic writing are aimed at the accurate transcription of any sequence of speech sounds; the best known is the International Phonetic Alphabet. Narrow transcription specifies as many features of a sound as can be symbolized, while broad transcription specifies only as many features of a sound as are necessary to distinguish it from other sounds. Each language uses a limited number of the humanly possible sounds grouped into phonemes, and the hearer-speaker is trained from childhood to classify them into these groups, rejecting as nonsignificant all sorts of features actually phonetically present. So the English speaker does not notice that he always makes a puff of air when he pronounces the p of pin and never makes the puff with the p of spin; for him they are the same sound. Yet in some languages (as in Sanskrit) just the presence or absence of that puff in both words would indicate a phonemic difference, and two words might differ in meaning because of the puff. In English the two sounds are considered variations of a single sound, the phoneme p, and as such are allophones. In the other situation, aspirated p (p with a puff) and unaspirated p are not allophones but separate phonemes. Phonemes include all significant differences of sound, including features of voicing, place and manner of articulation, accent, and secondary features of nasalization, glottalization, labialization, and the like. Whereas phonetics refers to the study of the production, perception, and physical nature of speech sounds, phonology refers to the study of how such sounds are combined in particular languages and of how they are used to convey meaning. Systematic sound change through time is treated by comparative and historical linguistics. See grammar; language; writing.


See K. Pike, Phonemics (1947); N. Chomsky and M. Halle, The Sound Pattern of English (1968); P. Ladefoged, A Course in Linguistic Phonetics (1982); G. Pullum and W. Ladusaw, Phonetic Symbol Guide (1986); I. R. MacKay, Phonetics (2d ed. 1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the branch of linguistics that studies the sounds of language. In contrast to the other linguistic disciplines, phonetics studies both the linguistic function of sounds and sounds themselves: their acoustic properties as well as the functioning of the speech organs. For this reason, phonetics has a relationship with nonlinguistic disciplines: with the anatomy and physiology of speech production and speech perception, on the one hand, and with the acoustics of speech, on the other. Phonetics, like linguistics in general, is associated with psychology, since speech is part of man’s psychic activity.

Unlike the nonlinguistic disciplines, phonetics regards sounds as elements in a linguistic system that give words and sentences a concrete acoustic form without which communication would be impossible. The acoustic aspect of language cannot be understood outside this function. Even an individual speech sound may be isolated from the sound chain only as a phoneme, that is, only in relation to the sound’s associations with the semantic units of language.

Phonetics may be studied in terms of its acoustic and articulatory aspects or in terms of its functional and linguistic aspects. Consequently, phonetics is divided into phonetics proper and phonology.

General phonetics is distinguished from applied phonetics, or the phonetics of individual languages. General phonetics studies the preconditions for speech production in terms of the capacities of the vocal apparatus. For example, the speech organs determine whether a consonant will be a labial, front, or back consonant, and the way in which the air stream from the lungs is obstructed determines whether a consonant will be an obstruent or a fricative. General phonetics also analyzes the acoustic properties of sound units, that is, the presence or absence of voicing in the pronunciation of various types of consonants. General classifications of sounds into vowels and consonants are based partly on articulatory properties and partly on acoustic properties.

General phonetics also examines coarticulation, as well as the principles of sound combinations and the influence of given sounds on adjacent sounds, reflected in various types of accommodation and assimilation. General phonetics studies the nature of the syllable, the principles by which sounds are combined into syllables, and the factors influencing syllabification. It examines the phonetic structure of words, and in particular the phenomenon of stress. It studies such intonational means as pitch, pauses, intensity, and the duration of the individual parts of a sentence.

Applied phonetics studies all the above features as applied to a given language and in relation to the functions performed by specific phonetic phenomena or units. Applied phonetics may be descriptive (synchronic) or historical (diachronic). Historical phonetics studies the evolution of a language’s sound system. The phonetic and phonological aspects of applied phonetics form an entity, since all phonetic units find expression indirectly, by means of a language’s semantic units.

Experimental methods are widely used in phonetics. Specialized apparatus are used in instrumental, or experimental, phonetic studies. The method of palatography determines the points of contact between the tongue and the palate during articulation. The position of the speech organs and their movement may be observed by means of X rays. Oscillography makes it possible to analyze the duration, pitch, and intensity of sounds, and spectrography provides a general acoustic picture of sounds. Other methods used in phonetics study the ways in which sounds are perceived by speakers of a given language and greatly facilitate the phonological analysis of such sounds.

Phonetics has a number of practical applications, as in the development of phonetic transcription and of orthographic systems. It facilitates the teaching of correct pronunciation, especially of foreign languages, and is used to correct speech defects in logopedics and in the education of the deaf. Information gained from phonetic studies helps increase the efficiency of means of communication.

The mechanisms by which speech sounds are produced were first examined in the 17th century, in works by J. P. de Bonet, J. Wallis, and J. C. Amman on the teaching of deaf-mutes. In the late 18th century the Russian physiologist Kh. Kratsenshtein originated the acoustic theory of vowels, which was further developed in the mid-19th century by H. Helmholtz. In the mid-19th century the German physiologist E. W. von Brücke studied the anatomy and physiology of the production of speech sounds. The German linguist E. Sievers, in Grundzüge der Lautphysiologie (1876; 2nd ed., Grundzüge der Phonetik, 1881), was the first to study speech sounds from a linguistic point of view. The works of H. Sweet, O. Jespersen, and M. Grammont played an important role in the development of phonetics.

In Russia, major contributions to the development of general phonetics were made by I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay and his students V. A. Bogoroditskii and L. V. Shcherba. Of great importance were the works of the Soviet linguist A. I. Tomson, among them General Linguistics (1906). At the present time, aspects of general and applied phonetics are dealt with by the Soviet linguists R. I. Avanesov, L. R. Zinder, M. I. Matusevich, and A. A. Reformatskii.


Matusevich, M. I. Vvedenie v obshchuiu fonetiku, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1959.
Zinder, L. R. Obshchaia fonetika. Leningrad, 1960.
Essen, O. von. Allgemeine und angewandte Phonetik, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1962.
Abercrombie, D. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh, 1967.
Manual of Phonetics. Amsterdam, 1968.
Malmberg, B. La Phonétique. Paris, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The study of the production or articulation and perception of speech as well as the acoustic characteristics of the sounds produced.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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