Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that deals with the proper scientific study of sounds associated with human speech. It is the science of describing linguistic sounds accurately, using special symbols and terminology.

Phones are speech sounds. All spoken languages are phonetic, including English. Non-phonetic languages would be languages like American Sign Language, which consists of gestures. Or mathematics, which consists of numbers and symbols, or PYTHON, which consists of computer code.

Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds. Or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Linguists who specialize in studying the physical properties of speech are phoneticians.

Linguists divide phonetics into three areas: articulatory phonetics (how the tongue and the mouth produce speech sounds), acoustic phonetics (the physical properties of the resulting sound waves) and auditory phonetics (how the ear and brain process and perceive speech sounds).

Sound versus Words

Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning. That is, to distinguish or to inflect words. Speakers of a language have an implicit knowledge about what is meaningful in their language. Semantics is the study of meaning, reference or truth. It considers what words mean, or are intended to mean, as opposed to their sound, spelling, grammatical function, and so on.


Difference between Phonics, Phonetics and Phonemes

Phonics is a system for teaching people how to read languages that use alphabets. It focus on the sounds associated with each group of letters.

Phonetics and Phonemics are two branches of linguistics which deal with the study of sounds. Therefore, they are closely related, but phonetics deals with the study of one aspect of sounds. While the phonemics deal with the study of the other side of sounds.

Phonemics or phonology focuses on a specific oral language and specific sounds used in that language. If you are interested in the phonology of the English language, you will only study sounds that appear in English. On the other hand, phonetics just focus on sounds people use.

Think of phonetics as trees and phonology as forests – trees in Iceland look very different to trees in the Caribbean but both places have forests.

Related: Syntax

Phonetic Spelling

French and English are not “phonetic”. That means that we do not always say a word the same way that we spell it. The English language may have 26 letters of the alphabet, but it has at least 44 sounds.

The biggest reason for silent letters is that, at one time, we pronounced the letters. Spelling tends to reflect the language as it was spoken when the language was standardized, rather than how it’s pronounced today.

Among the most phonetically consistent are the Croatian and Serbian languages (or as some refer to them as one “serbo-croatian”) which are 100 percent phonetic languages. There is no difference between written an spoken sounds.

Some languages have a very strong relationship between spoken sounds and written sounds, making their spelling more phonetic. Spanish, Russian, German, and Korean are very phonetic languages; words are usually pronounced exactly as they are written, and it is uncommon to find words with silent letters or characters.

What is diacritic?

A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter or to a basic glyph: a sign, such as an accent or cedilla, written above or below a letter to indicate a difference in pronunciation from the same letter when unmarked or differently marked. The term derives from the Ancient Greek διακριτικός, from διακρίνω. The word diacritic is a noun, though sometimes we use it in an attributive sense, whereas diacritical is only an adjective.

What is an example of a diacritic in phonetics?

Two diacritics appear in the word “déjà vu”. English speakers sometimes refer to them as special characters. Another example, the Ø (or minuscule: ø) is a letter used in the Danish, Norwegian, Faroese, and Southern Sámi languages. It is mostly used as a representation of mid front rounded vowels, such as [ø] ( listen) and [œ] ( listen), except for Southern Sámi where it is used as an [oe] diphthong.

In English, there are 44 phonemes, or word sounds that make up the language. We divide them into 19 consonants, 7 digraphs, 5 ‘r-controlled’ sounds, 5 long vowels, 5 short vowels, 2 ‘oo’ sounds, 2 diphthongs.

Did you know?

The most phonetic language in the world

Taa /ˈtɑː/, also known as ǃXóõ /ˈkoʊ/ (also spelled ǃKhong and ǃXoon; Taa pronunciation: [ǃ͡χɔ̃ː˦]), is a Tuu language. With five distinct kinds of clicks, multiple tones and strident vowels — vocalized with a quick choking sound — the Taa language, spoken by a few thousand people in Botswana and Namibia, most linguists believe they have the largest sound inventory of any tongue in the world.

Did you know?

English is the only major modern European language that does not have diacritics in common usage.

The Great Vowel Shift that occurred between 1350 and 1700 saw a great deal of phonetic changes occur, essentially leading to a condition where our spelling reflects a language that once didn’t really need accent marks, but now probably really does.

English speakers are more likely to omit the diacritics from words they consider to have become part of their language. Which is why they ditched them in such words as hotel, role and elite—from the French words hôtel, rôle and élite.

The three branches of Phonetics

Acoustic Phonetics

This is the study of the sound waves human vocal organs for communication make and how they transmit sounds. The sound travels through from the speaker’s mouth through the air to the hearer’s ear, through the form of vibrations in the air. Phoneticians can use equipment like Oscillograms and Spectrograms in order to analyse the frequency and duration of the sound waves produced.

Auditory Phonetics

This is how we perceive and hear sounds and how the ear, brain and auditory nerve perceives the sounds. This branch deals with the physiological processes involved in the reception of speech.

Articulatory Phonetics

Articulatory phonetics studies in the movement of various parts of the vocal tract during speech. The vocal tract is the passages above the larynx where air passes in the production of speech. In simpler terms, it is understanding which part of the mouth moves when we make a sound.

A VPM label is a term that is used in phonetics, meaning Voice Place Manner labels. These labels are given to sounds, in order to describe where the sound is produced, how and whether it is voiced or unvoiced (voiceless).  Sagittal sections like this one show exactly where each articulator is.


The International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) is a system set up to give symbols to all of the speech sounds that occur in all languages internationally. It is an alphabetic notation system, as one symbol corresponds to one particular sound. It was originally set up as linguists needed a system to transcribe sounds they heard, as the Roman Alphabet, whilst useful for spelling, does not account for different phonemes and their production.

Pulmonic consonants

Pulmonic consonants are those that are produced by setting air in motion from the lungs. In English, we use pulmonic consonants to make consonant sounds.

Twenty-one of the twenty-four English consonants are included on the pulmonic consonants chart. Additionally, there are eight different manners of articulation including six in English labeled as affricate, approximant, plosive, nasal, fricative, and lateral.


The quadrilateral shape, including symbols that you may recognise like i, and some that you may not, like ɛ, contains all of the vowel sounds used by languages internationally. The quadrilateral shape symbolizes the vowel space, i.e., the mouth.

The labels along the top of the quadrilateral, such as ‘front’ and ‘back’, describe the horizontal tongue position, which is where the tongue is horizontally positioned in the mouth for the production of that vowel. Therefore, for /i/, the tongue is the furthest front it can be for a vowel sound, whereas for /u/ it is the furthest back it can be.

The labels along the left side of the quadrilateral, such as ‘close’ and ‘open’, describe the vertical tongue position, which is how far the tongue is from the roof of the mouth. Therefore, for /i/, the tongue is the closest it can be for a vowel sound, whereas for /a/ it is the furthest away from the roof of the mouth that it can be.

Pulmonic consonants

p as in pat                              θ as in thin

b as in bat                              ð as in then

m as in mice                          s as in sip

n as in nice                            z as in zip

ŋ as in sing                            ʃ as in ship

     f as in fan                              ʒ as in measure

v as in van                             j as in yes


i as in bee

ɛ as in bet

æ as in bat

ɪ as in bit

ʊ as in but

ə as in letter

The phonemes (sounds) given above are those from Southern British English (SBE) which is similar to the Received Pronunciation (RP) accent associated with royalty and those of a high social class.

Due to differences in accent, you might produce the words given with different sounds than those shown. For example, if you’re from the north, it’s likely that you will use the [ʊ] phoneme in both ‘look’ and ‘putt’, where SBE has two different vowels. That is just one of the many interesting differences between regional accents.


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