The science of speech vs. speech science

image from wikipedia
image from Wikipedia

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. As such, it can be studied – and manipulated – by scientists and technicians from a wide range of disciplines. For example:

  • acoustics can investigate the properties that distinguish the sound of speech from other kinds of sounds
  • audio engineering can investigate how to record and reproduce speech in ways that make it easy or pleasant to listen to
  • telephony can investigate how best to encode and transmit speech over different kinds of communication channels
  • computer science can investigate how to develop computer systems that can accept speech as input, or produce speech as output.

As well, speech is undoubtedly produced and perceived by human physiological systems. That allows it to be studied from a range of biological perspectives. For example:

  • anatomists can look at the structure and function of the vocal tract (including the lungs, throat, mouth and nose) and the auditory system (including the outer, middle and inner ear)
  • engineers can model the mechanisms by which air is filtered through the larynx (voice box), mouth and nose to create a wide range of different kinds of sound
  • neurologists can look at the structures and processes in the brain that control the functioning of all complex organs involved in the production and perception of speech
  • medical scientists can investigate and treat the kinds of problems that can affect the proper functioning of all these systems.

All of these branches of speech science produce extremely valuable knowledge in their own right, and much of that knowledge is used by and appreciated by phonetics, the science of speech. Yet there are aspects that they don’t focus on to the same extent at phonetics does.

Speech as symbolic sound

Speech is a kind of sound made by the human vocal tract – but it is not just any old sound made by the human vocal tract. It is a sound that acts as a symbol or representation of linguistic meaning. Many of its characteristics come from that dimension so it is really important to have a deep understanding of what language is, and how it works.

That understanding comes from the study of linguistics, the science of language. That’s why it is important to see phonetics, the science of speech as a branch of linguistics – a human science, related to other social and cognitive sciences.

The disciplines of speech science (outlined above), while they might sometimes use some of the terminology of linguistics, would not normally see themselves as branches of linguistics, but rather as a branch of one of the ‘harder’ sciences.

Another reason

There’s another reason that good understanding of linguistics is essential to phonetics. That is that studying phonetics requires talking about speech – using language to discuss language. That is a special form of language (called metalanguage, or language about language). Using metalanguage carefully and rigorously is conceptually challenging. It helps a lot if you have a good understanding of how language works – and of how to communicate effectively using language about language. We go into a few relevant ideas in Rethink Words and elsewhere.

One last thing

As a branch of linguistics, and a relative of a range of social and cognitive sciences, phonetics doesn’t just take from other disciplines.

Phonetics has a large untapped vein of insight that has the potential to be of far more value to related disciplines than is usually realised.

Why is that?

Remember that what makes phonetics hard is not its technicalities but its conceptual challenges.

Doing phonetics well means getting to grips with conceptual issues that are more easily by-passed in many other disciplines. And that offers insights that have value far beyond phonetics itself.

That’s why Rethink Speech is keen for you to do Rethink Speech 101 even if you are not primarily focused on phonetics.

As we often say at Rethink Speech: If you can think well about speech, you can think well about anything.