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Lec Fonetica



    Lect. univ. drd. Mara VAN SCHAIK RDULESCU

    Specialitatea A i B Semestrul I


    The purpose of this course of lectures is to introduce the first year students to the study of sounds. The emphasis falls on the English sound system, but some examples from other languages are also brought up.

    Preparing for this course will first of all enable the students to recognise, transcribe and describe the English sounds in general phonetic terms. Secondly, they will become familiar with the object of phonology. Thirdly, the students will acquire some elementary knowledge about the phonotactics and syllabification rules of English.

    It is strongly recommended that the students also read the full course of lectures to be published.


    Phonetics and phonology are two related branches of linguistics, the science which studies language. Phonetics deals with the physical aspect of human speech sounds: their production, transmission, and reception. Phonology examines the functions of sounds within a language, as well as the way they combine in syllables and other stretches of speech.

    Speech sounds

    Speech sounds are the sounds we produce when we want to communicate, i.e., the sounds that build up our words and sentences. Unlike animals, which use sets of sounds at random to transmit brief uncomplicated messages (e.g., a honey-bee dancing in front of its hive), human beings can combine their sounds in a precise order so as to form larger units and to convey much ampler and more abstract meaning. This ability allows human languages to be (as good as) infinitely creative. In other words, human speakers can produce an indefinite number of words and sentences, while using a limited number of sound units and a restricted set of rules according to which these sounds are organised.

    Speaking a language we are intuitively aware that in order to pronounce it correctly (or accurately) we have to follow a certain pattern and pick those sounds that characterise it. This is because, as already stated, each language uses a closed set of sounds, and native speakers have the built-in ability to identify those sounds and associations of sounds which normally occur in their language and distinguish them from alien ones. It is usually when we try to learn a foreign language that we start to realise what is typical of it (i.e., what rules are there to observe) and where it differs from our native language. For example, a Romanian will have difficulties when learning how to master the difference between the initial sound in the word there [] and the corresponding sound in dare [d] because the former sound does not belong to the inventory of sounds of his own language. A similar lack of correspondence between the Romanian and the English sound systems stands behind the way the English vowel [] is rendered in Romanian in neologisms, e.g. in the way the name Lassie is pronounced Romanian [lesi]. Since there is no [] sound in Romanian, our language replaces it with the sound [e], which is the most similar to [] in our sound repertoire.

    Although each language can only make use of a finite set of sounds, each set is different, so there is no natural language that employs, has employed or probably will ever employ the same sounds as another one. Moreover, the sound system of any language changes in time. This is due to the fact that the vocal tract of a human being is sophisticated enough to produce an amazingly large variety of speech sounds, so that when the generations of speakers change, the sounds they use will also change, even if only imperceptibly, under various conditioning factors. Small changes turn over centuries into big shifts. This explains, for instance, why the sets of sounds of related languages, e.g., Romanian, Italian, French, etc. are not identical among themselves and with the sounds of the mother-language they all emerged from in our example: Latin.

  • The International Phonetic Alphabet The invention of the first alphabet marked a major breakthrough. Other systems of writing

    (ideographic, syllabic) had already been in use for a very long time. As compared to them, an alphabet is much more economical, as it starts from the idea that every sound should be represented by one symbol, a letter. Since, as stated above, there is only a small set of sounds employed in a language at a certain moment, the number of corresponding letters in an alphabet are also small, and thus easy to master and use. The most employed alphabet nowadays is the Latin one, which has been adapted by many languages according to their phonetic system.

    Nevertheless, natural languages tend to change, which makes the relationship between their spelling and their sounds imperfect. In fact, the older the alphabet, the more irregular the correspondence between letters and sounds, owing to the phonetic transformations which have taken place in the history of the respective language. In the English spelling, for instance, the relationship between the pronunciation and the spelling of words has become apparently so lax that learners have to memorise strings of letters which sometimes have one value, sometimes another: think, e.g., of the English ghost, laugh and thought. In the first word, the graphic sequence gh is pronounced [g], and in the second, [f], but in the third it is not pronounced at all.

    Faced with the imperfections and irregularities characterising the alphabets of natural languages, in order to be able to refer unambiguously and rigorously to speech sounds, linguists have come to design special phonetic alphabets. Nowadays, the best known in the scientific world is the alphabet of the International

  • Figure 1. The International Phonetic Alphabet

    Phonetic Association (in short: IPA see Figure 1), which can be used for the notation of speech sounds from all natural languages. The IPA was first devised at the end of the 19th century, and ever since it has been regularly revised and updated, so as to accommodate sounds from languages that are still being studied. Nevertheless, many American linguists prefer to use simpler symbols and diacritics available on typewriters. For instance, instead of IPA [] and [], they use [] and [] to note the initial sounds in ship and genre, respectively.

    Like any alphabet, IPA makes use of letters and other small symbols attached to them (diacritics) which can express the tiniest nuances of pronunciation. For instance, there are numerous shades of [t] listed in the IPA alphabet: aspirated [th] (as in top), labialised [tw] (as in twitter), palatalised [tj] (a in tune), etc. (see Figure 1). Such detailed notations are necessary in the narrow phonetic transcription, which tends to be exhaustive in its description, that is, to capture all the details in the articulation of the respective sound. The narrow transcription is useful when we wish to give an accurate and unitary rendering of the pronunciation of a sound in a certain language and/or in a specific phonetic environment. If, on the contrary, we need to be economical, we may only note the sound as a simple symbol, without any detail (i.e. in broad phonetic transcription) in our

  • example as [t]. By convention, the symbols used in the phonetic transcription are places within square brackets, e.g., the cat is on the mat: [ 'kt z on 'mt].

    Varieties of English

    Being spoken on all continents, English is the most widely spread language on earth. It is used by hundreds of millions of people, as a mother tongue, but also as a second language (e.g., in India, where it is an official language), or as a language of international communication (a lingua franca). The immense geographical spread of English makes it very different in various places. There are traditional dialectal differences, as those between standard British English and the English dialects spoken in the United Kingdom and Ireland (e.g., Scottish English, Irish English, etc.), but there are also differences due to the separate evolution of the language in various parts of the world (e.g., in the United States of America or Canada), or to the contact between English and the language of a colonised territory (e.g., in Hong Kong or South Africa). Standard British English, based on the southern dialects of England, also known as Received Pronunciation (in short, RP), is the type of language used by the upper middle classes, in schools and in the media. In the United States a corresponding standard variety is called General American (abbreviated GenAm).

    Branches of phonetics

    Phonetics, as practised today, is an independent science, with its own methods of investigation and experiment, but importing data from the fields of anatomy, physiology and physics. As already stated, phonetics deals with speech sounds, focusing on how they are produced and perceived and on their physical features. Speech sounds can be described in three different ways: in terms of (a) the manner of their production; (b) the acoustic properties of the sound-waves travelling between speaker and hearer; and (c) their physical effects upon the ear. Hence a threefold division of this science into: articulatory, acoustic and auditory phonetics. We will start by a short presentation of the last two branches.

    Acoustic phonetics

    Acoustic phonetics is the most technical branch of phonetics, as the data and the methods it operates with are mostly borrowed from physics. Analysed from the physical point of view, speech sounds are waves, originated by the vibration of the source (the vocal cords in the human larynx) and transmitted through the air. Waves can be represented graphically in sinusoidal shape (see Figure 2). They have two important characteristics. One of them is frequen