When the analysis of speech is carried out by the listener’s ear, the analysis is said to be an auditory one, and when the listener’s brain receives information from the ears it is said to be receiving auditory information. In practical phonetics, great importance has been given to auditory training: this is sometimes known as ear-training, but in fact it is the brain and not the ear that is trained. With expert teaching and regular practice, it is possible to learn to make much more precise and reliable discriminations among speech sounds than untrained people are capable of. Although the analysis of speech sounds by the trained expert can be carried out entirely auditorily, in most cases the analyst also tries to make the sound (particularly when working face to face with a native speaker of the language or dialect), and the proper name for this analysis is then auditory-kinaesthetic.
There are many types of consonant, but what all have in common is that they obstruct the flow of air through the vocal tract. Some do this a lot, some not very much: those which make the maximum obstruction (i.e. plosives, which form a complete stoppage of the airstream) are the most consonantal. Nasal consonants result in complete stoppage of the oral cavity but are less obstructive than plosives since air is allowed to escape through the nose. Fricatives make a considerable obstruction to the flow of air, but not a total closure. Laterals obstruct the flow of air only in the centre of the mouth, not at the sides, so obstruction is slight. Other sounds classed as approximants make so little obstruction to the flow of air that they could almost be thought to be vowels if they were in a different context (e.g. English w or r).
The above explanation is based on phonetic criteria. An alternative approach is to look at the phonological characteristics of consonants: for example, consonants are typically found at the beginning and end of syllables while vowels are typically found in the middle.
“Linking” or “joining together” of sounds is what this French word refers to. In general this is not something that speakers need to do anything active about – we produce the phonemes that belong to the words we are using in a more or less continuous stream, and the listener recognises them (or most of them) and receives the message. However, phoneticians have felt it necessary in some cases to draw attention to the way the end of one word is joined on to the beginning of the following word. In English the best-known case of liaison is the “linking r”: there are many words in English (e.g. ‘car’, ‘here’, ‘tyre’) which in a rhotic accent such as General American or Scots would be pronounced with a final r but which in BBC pronunciation end in a vowel when they are pronounced before a pause or before a consonant. When they are followed by a vowel, BBC speakers pronounce r at the end (e.g. ‘the car is’ ðə kɑr iz) – it is said that this is done to link the words without sliding the two vowels together (though it is difficult to see how such a statement could stand as an explanation of the phenomenon – lots of languages do run vowels together). Another aspect of liaison in English is the movement of a single consonant at the end of an unstressed word to the beginning of the next if that is strongly stressed: a well-known example is ‘not at all’, where the t of ‘at’ becomes initial (and therefore strongly aspirated) in the final syllable for many speakers.
Most of the mental processes involved in understanding speech are unknown to us, but it is clear that discovering more about them can be very important in the general study of pronunciation. It is clear from what we know already that perception is strongly influenced by the listener’s expectations about the speaker’s voice and what the speaker is saying; many of the assumptions that a listener makes about a speaker are invalid when the speaker is not a native speaker of the language, and it is hoped that future research in speech perception will help to identify which aspects of speech are most important for successful understanding and which type of learner error has the most profound effect on intelligibility.
Phonetics is the scientific study of speech. It has a long history, going back certainly to well over two thousand years ago. The central concerns in phonetics are the discovery of how speech sounds are produced, how they are used in spoken language, how we can record speech sounds with written symbols and how we hear and recognise different sounds. In the first of these areas, when we study the production of speech sounds we can observe what speakers do (articulatory observation) and we can try to feel what is going on inside our vocal tract (kinaesthetic observation). The second area is where phonetics overlaps with phonology: usually in phonetics we are only interested in sounds that are used in meaningful speech, and phoneticians are interested in discovering the range and variety of sounds used in this way in all the known languages of the world. This is sometimes known as linguistic phonetics. Thirdly, there has always been a need for agreed conventions for using phonetic symbols that represent speech sounds; the International Phonetic Association has played a very important role in this. Finally, the auditory aspect of speech is very important: the ear is capable of making fine discrimination between different sounds, and sometimes it is not possible to define in articulatory terms precisely what the difference is. A good example of this is in vowel classification: while it is important to know the position and shape of the tongue and lips, it is often very important to have been trained in an agreed set of standard auditory qualities that vowels can be reliably related to.
This term is used to describe varieties of English pronunciation in which the r phoneme is found in all phonological contexts. In BBC Pronunciation, r is only found before vowels (as in ‘red’ red, ‘around’ əraυnd ), but never before consonants or before a pause. In rhotic accents, on the other hand, r may occur before consonants (as in ‘cart’ kɑrt) and before a pause (as in ‘car’ kɑr). While BBC pronunciation is non-rhotic, many accents of the British Isles are rhotic, including most of the south and west of England, much of Wales, and all of Scotland and Ireland. Most speakers of American English speak with a rhotic accent, but there are non-rhotic areas including the Boston area, lower-class New York and the Deep South.
Foreign learners encounter a lot of difficulty in learning not to pronounce r in the wrong places, and life would be easier for most learners of English if the model chosen were rhotic.
It has long been recognised that most languages contain a class of sound that functions in a way similar to consonants but is phonetically similar to vowels: in English, for example, the sounds w and j (as found in ‘wet’ and ‘yet’) are of this type: they are used in the first part of syllables, preceding vowels, but if w and j are pronounced slowly, it can be clearly heard that in quality they resemble the vowels [u] and [i] respectively. (See also contoid and vocoid.) The term semivowel has been in use for a long time for such sounds, though it is not a very helpful or meaningful name; the term approximant is more often used today. Americans usually use the symbol y for the sound in ‘yes’, but European phoneticians reserve this symbol for a close front rounded vowel.
English has words which are pronounced differently according to whether they are followed by a vowel or a consonant: these are ‘the’ ði or ðə and the indefinite article ‘a/an’, and it is the pre-consonantal form that we find before j and w. In addition, “linking r”, which is found in BBC and other non-rhotic accents, does not appear before semivowels. It is by looking at evidence such as this that we can conclude that as far as English is concerned, j and w are in the same phonological class as the other consonants despite their vowel-like phonetic nature.
In present-day usage, transcription is the writing down of a spoken utterance using a suitable set of symbols. In its original meaning the word implied converting from one representation (e.g. written text) into another (e.g. phonetic symbols). Transcription exercises are a long-established exercise for teaching phonetics. There are many different types of transcription: the most fundamental division that can be made is between phonemic and phonetic transcription. In the case of the former, the only symbols that may be used are those which represent one of the phonemes of the language, and extra symbols are excluded. In a phonetic transcription the transcriber may use the full range of phonetic symbols if these are required; a narrow phonetic transcription is one which carries a lot of fine detail about the precise phonetic quality of sounds, while a broad phonetic transcription gives a more limited amount of phonetic information.
Many different types of phonemic transcription have been discussed: many of the issues are too complex to go into here, but the fundamental question is whether a phonemic transcription should only represent what can be heard, or whether it should also include sounds that the native speaker feels belong to the words heard, even if those sounds are not physically present. Take the word ‘football’, which every native speaker of English can see is made from ‘foot’ and ‘ball’: in ordinary speech it is likely that no t will be pronounced, though there will probably be a brief p sound in its place. Those who favour a more abstract phonemic transcription will say that the word is still phonemically fυtbɔl, and the bilabial stop is just a bit of allophonic variation that is not worth recording at this level.
Vowels are the class of sound which makes the least obstruction to the flow of air. They are almost always found at the centre of a syllable, and it is rare to find any sound other than a vowel which is able to stand alone as a whole syllable. In phonetic terms, each vowel has a number of properties that distinguish it from other vowels. These include the shape of the lips, which may be rounded (as for an u vowel), neutral (as for ə) or spread (as in a smile, or an i vowel – photographers traditionally ask their subjects to say “cheese” tʃiz so that they will seem to be smiling). Secondly, the front, the middle or the back of the tongue may be raised, giving different vowel qualities: the BBC vowel (‘cat’) is a front vowel, while the ɑ of ‘cart’ is a back vowel. The tongue (and the lower jaw) may be raised close to the roof of the mouth, or the tongue may be left low in the mouth with the jaw comparatively open. In British phonetics we talk about ‘close’ and ‘open’ vowels, whereas American phoneticians more often talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ vowels. The meaning is clear in either case.
Vowels also differ in other ways: they may be nasalised by being pronounced with the soft palate lowered as for n or m – this effect is phonemically contrastive in French, where we find minimal pairs such as très trε (‘very’) and ‘train’ trε˜ (‘train’), where the ̃ diacritic indicates nasality. Nasalised vowels are found frequently in English, usually close to nasal consonants: a word like ‘morning’ mɔniŋ is likely to have at least partially nasalised vowels throughout the whole word, since the soft palate must be lowered for each of the consonants. Vowels may be voiced, as the great majority are, or voiceless, as happens in some languages: in Portuguese, for example, unstressed vowels in the last syllable of a word are often voiceless and in English the first vowel in ‘perhaps’ or ‘potato’ is often voiceless. Less usual is the case of stressed voiceless vowels, but these are found in French: close vowels, particularly i but also the close front rounded y and the back rounded u, become voiceless for some speakers when they are word-final before a pause (for example ‘oui’ wi , ‘midi’ midi , and also ‘entendu’ ɑ˜ tɑ˜ dy , ‘tout’ tu ).
It is claimed that in some languages (probably including English) there is a distinction to be made between tense and lax vowels, the former being made with greater force than the latter.