Phonetics - Unit One - Lesson No. 1

Aims and scope of phonetics

Phonetics is the study of how speech sounds are produced, transmitted and articulated. In linguistics, phonetics is the first level of linguistic analysis. There are several aims and purposes for studying phonetics.

To begin with, phonetics of any given language is studied so as to identify it as a particular language from other language. For example, the phonetics of Arabic language is studied to identify Arabic from other languages.

Another aim for studying phonetics is to get familiar with the sound system of a given language, in order to know how to pronounce its sounds properly. Take English language as an example. We study the phonetics of English language in order to learn how to pronounce English sounds properly.

Yet one more aim of studying phonetics is to compare languages with each other, and find out how far two or more languages are different or similar in terms of speech sounds. Usually, languages belonging to a particular language family tend to share most of the sounds, with slight modification from a language to language. In languages which come from different language families the scope of difference is high. For example, Arabic, a Semitic language, differs greatly from English which belongs to Indo-European language family.

Another aim for studying phonetics involves the articulation of sounds. We study phonetics in order to know how speech organs work. To this end, there is a branch of phonetics called articulatory phonetics. Studying phonetics also involves sounds perception. That is, how human beings perceive sounds. There is a branch of phonetics which is concerned with sound perception and it is called auditory or perceptual phonetics. These two fields of phonetics are crucial in clinical linguistics and speech pathology, in that they help speech pathologists to diagnose and treat problems in speech production and speech perception. A speech pathologist should have a sound knowledge of phonetics, speech organs and the mechanisms of speech production. Even in pure medical situations, a linguist specialized in phonetics – i.e., phonetician – is invited to the diagnostic labs in order to aid in diagnosing the patients who suffer from problems related to speech production or perception.

Scope of phonetics

What are the topics of interest to phonetics? Phonetics is concerned with studying speech sounds. There are three types of phonetics: articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics and auditory phonetics.

Articulatory phonetic examines the way speech sounds are produced from the speech organs. It is also concerned with the classification and description of speech sounds into vowels and consonants. Other topics include the transcription of speech sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA, for short).

Acoustic phonetics examines the sound waves and how these waves are transmitted through different mediums, mostly the air medium. Interesting topics in acoustic phonetics include the properties of speech sound such as pitch, loudness, and quality.

Auditory phonetics investigates the way human beings perceive the speech sounds. Popular topics in auditory phonetics include the anatomy of ear, and the different structures inside it. How the air drum works and decode the sound waves into signals transmitted to the brain for processing. When things come to the brain, they fall outside the scope of phonetics, as they become part of neurolinguistics.

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