OK, so what IS phonetics?

Cher makes a FABULOUS phony Titian – is she also a phonetician? (Image by Ian Smith.)

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. It’s the knowledge base that helps us answer the question we posed on our very first page: What is the strange, ethereal stuff that passes between our mouths and our ears, and how does it work to make conversation possible?

That’s ‘science’ in the broad sense

One of the most important things about phonetics, not always given the recognition it deserves, is that it is a branch of linguistics, which is the science of language (not knowledge of specific languages, but language in general, as a human capacity.

After all, to understand the nature of speech, you need to understand the nature of language, especially the nature of words, which itself is a topic prone to many misconceptions.

But beyond a unifying basis in linguistics, phonetics is one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary sciences you can find, straddling the physical and human sciences in a most intriguing manner, as we try to show you at Rethink Speech.

Once you have done a few of our modules, we hope you will agree real phonetics is far more interesting and useful than might be expected from all the false definitions that go around. And studying phonetics can contribute far more to the human, social and cognitive sciences than is usually recognised.

Here are just a few of its many branches (each of which of course overlaps with other disciplines):

  • acoustic phonetics studies the physical nature of speech as a sound wave;
  • articulatory phonetics studies how speech is produced in the mouth (or vocal tract);
  • phonology studies how speech sounds can be used systematically to enable speakers of different languages to convey meaning in words, phrases and sentences;
  • psycholinguistics studies the mental or neural processes involved in learning, producing, and perceiving speech;
  • sociophonetics studies the ways speech varies within and between social groups, through use of different accents;
  • computational phonetics studies how to program computers to produce and interpret speech;
  • applied phonetics studies how to assist with practical tasks involving speech, especially teaching pronunciation to second language learners, but also forensic evidence and many other areas (we have a whole topic on applied phonetics shortly).

Each of these branches has a range of foundational observations and findings that it develops into a range of different theories that can be used for a variety of different purposes and applications.

Rethink Speech draws on all of these branches, and on other disciplines as well, to present a foundation of knowledge that is very well established in phonetic science, but unfortunately very little known outside.

The knowledge Rethink Speech presents is common to all or most theories of phonetics – but we frame it in light of a particular view of phonetics called Cognitive Phonetics – a new approach that bridges theoretical and applied branches in a really productive way.

We give a short definition of Cognitive Phonetics later on, but really the best way to get an impression is to do some of the Rethink Speech modules. You’ll find them interesting even if, perhaps especially if, you have studied phonetics before.

And no, we don’t aim to brainwash you with the specific theory of Cognitive Phonetics – as if we could! You are more than welcome to agree or disagree with anything and everything on this site. Our aim is to get you thinking about phonetics, learning to Rethink Speech, so you can ask your own questions about speech and reach your own conclusions based on reliable information.