Phonetics (Gr. φωνή = voice, sound) is the the study of speech sounds. It investigates and tries to describe how speech sounds are produced, transmitted and interpreted in the speech chain.

Subdisciplines of Phonetics

We can distinguish between three different sub-disciplines of phonetics:

subdiscipline area(s) of investigation
articulatory phonetics deals with the movements and constellations of the vocal organs in producing individual sounds
acoustic phonetics investigates physical properties of sounds and their transmission
auditory phonetics deals with the excitation and constellations of the auditory organs (and the brain) in interpreting individual sounds

Types of Sounds & Phonetic Symbols

In this section, we’ll have a look at which types of sounds exist and how they can be classified from a phonetic point of view. We can initially distinguish between two different types, vowels & consonants. The former are characterised by a relatively free and unimpeded flow of air through the vocal tract and mainly depend on the constellation of the lower jaw, the tongue and the lips. Consonants, in contrast, are in most cases produced by considerably narrowing or even closing off and opening the vocal tract. Thus, it can easily be seen that vowels are sounds that can usually be sustained for a fairly long period of time, whereas this is rather more difficult to achieve for consonants.


Among the vowels, we can basically distinguish between two major classes, those that consist of a single, essentially stable and non-changing sound, and those that involve a combination of multiple sounds and movements between them. The first type are referred to as monophthongs, and the second type comprises diphthongs (combinations of two sounds) and triphthongs (combinations of three sounds). For the English monophthongs, we can draw a further distinction between long (i:, ɜ:, ɑ: (a:), o: (ɔ:), u:) and short (ɪ, i, ɛ (e), ə, a (æ), ʌ, ɒ, ʊ) ones, although there is usually not simply a difference in length between them, but also one of quality. Generally, vowels in English are also voiced, i.e. the vocal folds inside the larynx (more colloquially referred to as ‘Adam’s apple’) open and close at regular intervals during their production.

Vowels in English can be described according to their degree of openness – i.e. in relation to the position of the lower jaw and the mass of tongue –, the degree of backness – how far back the tongue is inside the mouth –, and according to lip rounding, where the general rule for English is that lip rounding increases with the degree of backness. To illustrate these properties, a so-called vowel chart that represents the relative positions of the mass of the tongue inside the mouth for each vowel, is generally used. You can find such a chart (as well as charts that illustrate the movements for diphthongs), linked to sound files for the individual vowels, on the vowels page of my phonetics course.


  1. Go through the vowel chart and familiarise yourself with the individual symbols and their associated sounds. Try to imitate each one in turn until you’re confident that you can reproduce it adequately, paying particular attention to the position of your tongue.
  2. Try to explain the difference between /i:/ and /ʊ/, using the criteria for distinguishing vowels listed above, as well as making reference to their length.


Consonants can be classified according to whether they are voiced or voiceless, their manner of articulation, as well as their place of articulation. For manner of articulation we can distinguish between:

  1. plosives (including nasals): complete closure of the mouth to build up energy which is then explosively released
    /p/ & /b/, /t/ & /d/, /k/ & /g/; /ʔ/; /m/, /n/ & /ŋ/
  2. fricatives: incomplete closure that produces a kind of turbulence and consequently a ‘whistling’ effect
    /f/ & /v/, /θ/ & /ð/, /s/ & /z/, /ʃ/ & /ʒ/, and /h/
  3. affricates: a combination of a plosive, followed by a fricative
    /tʃ/ & /dʒ/; /tɹ/ & /dɹ/
  4. laterals and approximants (semi-vowels)
    /l/; /ɹ/, /j/, /w/

As far as place of articulation is concerned, we can distinguish between the following types of articulation:

  1. bi-labial: involving both lips
    /p/, /b/ & /m/
  2. labio-dental: involving the upper teeth and the lower lip
    /f/ & /v/
  3. dental
    /θ/ & /ð/
  4. alveolar: at the ridge just behind the upper teeth
    /t/, /d/, /n/; /s/, /z/; /ɹ/, /l/
  5. palato-alveolar: between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate
    /ʃ/ & /ʒ/; /tʃ/ & /dʒ/
  6. palatal: at the hard palate
  7. velar: at the soft palate
    /k/, /g/, /ŋ/
  8. glottal: inside the throat
    /h/; /ʔ/

Detailed information on the individual properties of the consonants that occur in English can be found on the consonants page of my phonetics course.

Phonetic Transcription

Phonetic Transcription, also known as narrow transcription, uses square brackets ([]) to indicate that we want to represent phonetic detail, rather than an abstract representation of what was said or how something is usually assumed to be said in a particular accent/language. The latter is something we represent in phonemic transcription, which we’ll discuss later.

If you want to practise phonetic transcription on the computer, you can use my web based transcription editor.


  1. Read the following transcribed piece of text from a well-known children’s book and try to convert it into its original written form. Please note, though, that this transcription contains features of connected speech that we won’t be able to cover here, but that you should at least be aware of. This includes ‘dropping’ of some phonemes (elision) and also neighbouring phonemes influencing each other to change their form so that they become more alike one another (assimilation). To make things a little easier for you, I have provided the transcription as one ‘sentence’ per line.
  2. Transcribe, to the best of your abilities, the following extract from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

Sources & Further Reading:

For further details and references, see my phonetics & phonology course.