Phonetics (from the Greek word phone = sound/voice) is the study of speech sounds (voice). It is concerned with the actual nature of the sounds and their production, as opposed to phonology, which operates at the level of sound systems and linguistic units (such as phonemes and distinctive features). Discussions of meaning (semantics) do not enter at this level of linguistic analysis. Phones, the objects of study in phonetics, are actual speech sounds as uttered by human beings.
While writing systems and alphabets are (in many cases) closely related to the sounds of speech, strictly speaking, phoneticians are more concerned with the sounds of speech than the symbols used to represent them. So close is the relationship between them however, that many dictionaries list the study of the symbols (more accurately semiotics) as a part of phonetic studies. On the other hand, logographic writing systems typically give much less phonetic information, but the information is not necessarily non-existent. For instance, in Chinese characters, a phonetic refers to the portion of the character that hints at its pronunciation. Characters featuring the same phonetic typically have similar pronunciations, but by no means are the pronunciations predictably determined by the phonetic due to the fact that pronunciations diverged over many centuries while the characters remained the same. Not all Chinese characters are radical-phonetic compounds, but a good majority of them are.
Phonetics has three main branches:
There are several hundred different phones recognized by the International Phonetic Association (IPA) and transcribed in their International Phonetic Alphabet.
Of all the speech sounds that a human vocal tract can create, different languages vary considerably in the number of these sounds that they use. Languages can contain from 2 (Abkhaz) to 55 (Sedang) vowels and 6 (Rotokas) to 117 (!Xu) consonants. The total number of phonemes in languages varies from as few as 10 in the Pirahã language, 11 in Rotokas (spoken in Papua New Guinea), 12 in Hawaiian and 30 in Serbian to as many as 141 in !Xu (spoken in southern Africa, in the Kalahari desert). These may range from familiar sounds like /t/, /s/ or /m/ to very unusual ones produced in extraordinary ways (see: clicks, phonation, airstream mechanism). The English language has about 13 vowel and 24 consonant phonemes (depending upon dialect), which have multiple allophones. This differs from the lay definition based on the Latin alphabet, where there are 21 consonants and 5 vowels (although sometimes y and w are included as vowels).
Phonetics was studied as early as 1800 BC in Ancient Egypt (see Alphabet: History and diffusion). In ancient India, a Tamil grammar book Tolkaappiyam (c. 2nd Century CE) describes the place and manner of articulation of consonants. Most Indian languages group and order their consonants based on place and methods of articulation.
External links and references
- On-line phonetics course (http://www2.unil.ch/ling/english/phonetique/table-eng.html)