WHAT IS PHONETICS?

Phonetics is the linguistic science that deals with the description of speech sounds in
articulatory, acoustic, or auditory terms. From the outset it is important, however, to
distinguish phonetics from phonology. The latter, though closely linked with phonetics,
focuses on the patterns of sounds in a particular language or group of related languages, and
the relationships between those sounds – i.e. how they behave in different environments, the
changes they undergo, etc. Phonology can be divided into segmental phonology, which deals
with individual sounds (i.e. segments of speech) and their patterns, and suprasegmental (or
non-segmental) phonology, which examines the larger units of connected speech: syllables,
words, phrases, and sentences. The suprasegmental aspects include stress, intonation, and
rhythm. These concepts will be looked at in greater detail further on.
When we speak, we produce speech sounds that are usually transmitted to another
human being, who perceives them as such. This set of events – sound production,
transmission and perception- which takes place within a general process of human
communication, is known as the speech chain (see figure 1). In view of the complexities of
each step of the process, the general field of phonetic research has been subdivided into three
branches, each concentrating on one stage within the speech chain. Articulatory phonetics
focuses on the anatomy, physiology, and actions of the organs of the human vocal system.
Acoustic phonetics investigates the ways in which speech sounds produced by the vocal
apparatus are transformed into acoustic vibration, and how this is transmitted (sound waves).
Auditory phonetics deals with the ways in which the speech signals are perceived, and
processed by the ear and brain of the listener. From a methodological perspective, a
distinction has also been made between descriptive phonetics and instrumental phonetics,
with the latter using instrumental methods in the study of speech sound production and
transmission. As a result, it is closely associated with acoustic phonetics. Finally, the term
experimental phonetics is sometimes used to denote the branch in which the emphasis is on
the cerebral processes underlying speech.

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