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. Perhaps you have even heard there is an International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that makes this possible.

Well, all that is not exactly wrong – but it is not exactly right either. Let’s look at some of the misconceptions.

Transcribing speech should be easier than spelling, right?

English spelling has a reputation (not fully deserved) for being chaotic and unsystematic. On this view, it seems it would be much simpler to write with a system in which each sound, or ‘phoneme’, is represented consistently by only one symbol.

Well, phonetics can create a system like that – which is technically called phonemic transcription, though almost everyone wrongly calls it ‘phonetic transcription’.

But there’s a more important thing many people are wrong about

That is the idea that phonemic transcription is ‘simple’. Yes, it seems as if it should be very easy to learn phonemic transcription: just memorise a set of symbols, and off you go.

Maybe you’ve even thought ‘phonetic transcription’ is so straightforward it’s not really worth making the effort to rote-learn a bunch of symbols.

It’s different when you actually do try to do it

Most people find it surprisingly difficult. It’s not too bad for basic words like ‘had’ and ‘head’, but when you get to long words or sentences it can become quite a nightmare. Far from being mere rote learning, it involves getting to grips with some serious conceptual issues.

So even after you learn to avoid the ‘clearly wrong’ answers, there are almost always multiple ‘right’ answers, and choosing among them involves understanding their presuppositions and implications. That’s hard for individual words, and seriously complex when you get to full sentences and conversations.

So to be honest, those who find phonemic transcription easy are usually missing some of the complexity – most likely because their teacher or textbook has pre-selected some ‘right answers’ so as to make it seem easier than it really is.

Now here’s the interesting thing

People who find phonemic transcription hard usually blame themselves for being ‘hopeless at phonetics’ – rather than realising that their lack of aptitude actually poses a really interesting question.

We assume one-symbol-one-sound will be much easier than our current spelling system. But in reality it is not. Maybe it is not the students that are hopeless, but the assumption! That has a lot of implications that are worth following up – which is exactly what we do at Rethink Speech. You can get a bit of head start from our topic introducing the difference between phonetics and phonology.

What about transcribing other languages?

If you have the idea that transcribing your own language is easy, it seems like a small step to learn a few additional symbols to represent those weird sounds they use in foreign languages – even to master the entire International Phonetic Alphabet – and be able to write down the sounds of any language.

Sadly, it’s not like that. Transcribing foreign languages is a seriously complex task, and not just because you lack the right symbols. You can get an impression of the difficulty from our ‘Unknown language’ demo – first up in the Unlearning module.

The IPA is a highly useful tool, but its use is not for transcribing extended passages of languages you don’t know a word of. Expert phoneticians rarely if ever take on this next-to-impossible task.

So the message is …

… phonetics is about waaaay more than learning funny symbols to use instead of letters. A good way to start learning phonetics is to gain understanding of why transcription is so much harder than we think it will be, and what that can tell us about the nature of speech and about the human capacity for using speech. We do a bit of that in RTS101: Unlearning, and look at important practical implications in Forensic Transcription.