Why rethink phonetics?

Phonetics is the science of speech

You might not find yourself thinking about phonetics terribly much at all – so you might be surprised to hear that at Rethink Speech, we want you to re-think phonetics!

The reason is that how people think about speech affects how they think about phonetics, and how people think about phonetics affects how they think about speech.

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Phonetics? That’s like speech therapy, right?

When (or if) people think about phonetics, one common idea is that phonetics involves describing how the sounds of speech (or ‘phonemes’) are produced (or ‘articulated’) in the mouth. If you hold this idea, you might wonder why anyone would want to do that – and an obvious answer is to help people who have trouble in producing particular sounds, for example, people with a lisp, or people who say ‘rabbit’ as ‘wabbit’.

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How to make a phonetician really sad and frustrated

grumpy-teacherMost phoneticians love to talk about their science. But there’s one reaction that makes us want to lie about our profession. The conversation we dread goes something like this:

  • Hi what do you do?
  • I do research in phonetics, the science of speech.
  • Oh dear, I’d better mind what I say – ha ha – hey George, watch what you say, the pronunciation police are here (etc etc etc).
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Isn’t phonetics a special system that lets you write the sounds of any language?

ipachartc‘Phonetic spelling’, in everyday language, means a way of representing words that gives a clear idea of their pronunciation – as opposed to standard spelling, which often obscures the pronunciation. For example, where standard spelling gives ‘rough’, phonetic spelling might give ‘ruff’.

From this, people often get the idea that phonetics is a more scientific way of doing phonetic spelling.

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OK, so what IS phonetics?

OK, so if phonetics isn’t any of these things, what is it? Phoneticians often give it a broad but simple definition (yes, experts in phonetics often call themselves phoneticians; and no, that doesn’t mean they are phony Titians, with dyed red hair!)

Simply put, phonetics is the science of speech, in all its aspects.

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Did you know you have a theory of speech? We call it the c-a-t theory

You might think that learning phonetics involves learning some theory about speech. If you are a scholar, you might even think it involves learning several different theories of speech, comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of each. Indeed those ideas are true – there are a great many theories about speech that need to be learned and evaluated.

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I’ve also heard of phonology: Is that just another word for phonetics, or something different?

‘Phonetics’ is a bit like ‘dog’

At one level, ‘dog’ is a general word for any member of a particular species of animal. At this level, the word ‘dog’ contrasts with words for members of other species such as ‘cat’ or ‘horse’. Let’s call that the broad level.

At another level, ‘dog’ is a particular kind of animal within this species, specifically, an adult male canine.

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The science of speech vs. speech science

We define phonetics as the science of speech. There’s another term that sounds very similar but, though sometimes used interchangeably, often refers to a quite different kind of study. That is speech science. To understand the difference in approach, let’s think a little about what speech is.

Speech as a kind of sound made by a human vocal tract

Speech undoubtedly is a kind of sound.

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What is cognitive phonetics?

Cognitive Phonetics is the scientific study of how people think about speech.

That may seem a bit paradoxical. If phonetics is a science, shouldn’t it focus on what speech is really like, not on what people think about it?

Well certainly phonetics needs to observe what speech is really like – but doing so turns out to raise a lot of questions about how people think about speech – as we discuss in our Intro.

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