What Is Phonetics?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production, combination, description, and representation by written symbols. Adjective: phonetic. Pronounced [fah-NET-iks]. From the Greek, "sound, voice"

A linguist who specializes in phonetics is known as a phonetician. As discussed below, the boundaries between the disciplines of phonetics and phonology aren't always sharply defined.

Examples and Observations of Phonetics

  • "Linguistics contributes to phonetics its phonological understanding of the distinctive patterns that make up the coded, conventional aspects of speech which differentiate individual words and other units of spoken language. Phonetics contributes to linguistics its phonetic understanding of the production and perception of the detailed artefacts of speech that embody those significant phonological patterns. Each contribution is complemented by the other."

The Study of Phonemes

  • "In any language we can identify a small number of regularly used sounds (vowels and consonants) that we call phonemes; for example, the vowels in the words 'pin' and 'pen' are different phonemes, and so are the consonants at the beginning of the words 'pet' and 'bet.' Because of the notoriously confusing nature of English spelling, it is particularly important to learn to think of English pronunciation in terms of phonemes rather than letters of the alphabet; one must be aware, for example, that the word 'enough' begins with the same vowel phoneme as that at the beginning of 'inept' and ends with the same consonant as 'stuff.'"

Phonetics and the Brain

  • "Until recently, we knew little about what is going on in the brain when people are speaking, and this is why the science of phonetics has concentrated on the three central components of the speech chain, where observation of what is going on is fairly straightforward. However, our understanding of how the brain works in speech communications has grown enormously in recent years. One of the most significant advances in recent research has been the development of safe and accurate brain-scanning techniques that can show us the activities of different parts of the brain when someone is speaking or listening to speech..."

Experimental Phonetics

  • "Phonetics is the study of speech. Traditionally, phoneticians have relied on their ears and eyes, and their awareness of their own vocal organs, to study pronunciation. Increasingly, however, they have been using instruments of various types to supplement the information they derive from their own sensations. Experimental phonetics, as the term is commonly used, includes any investigation of speech by means of instruments. It is understood here that the instruments are used to visualize some aspect of the speech event, and possibly also to provide a basis for measurements. For example, a tape recording for the purpose of repeated listening does not fall within the scope of experimental phonetics, but if the tape recording is fed into a computer and used to produce an acoustic analysis, the activity would be described as an experimental investigation."

The Phonetics-Phonology Interface

  • "Phonetics interfaces with phonology in three ways. First, phonetics defines distinctive features. Second, phonetics explains many phonological patterns. These two interfaces constitute what has come to be called the 'substantive grounding' of phonology.


  • John Laver, "Linguistic Phonetics." The Handbook of Linguistics, ed. by Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller. Blackwell, 2001
  • Peter Roach, English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2009
  • (Peter Roach, Phonetics. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Katrina Hayward, Experimental Phonetics: An Introduction. Routledge, 2014
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Phonetics?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/phonetics-definition-1691622. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is Phonetics? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phonetics-definition-1691622 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Phonetics?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phonetics-definition-1691622 (accessed June 1, 2023).