Dr. C. George Boeree Shippensburg University
Phonetics is the study of the sounds of language. These sounds are called phonemes. There are literally hundreds of them used in different languages. Even a single language like English requires us to distinguish about 40! The key word here is distinguish. We actually make much finer discriminations among sounds, but English only requires 40. The other discriminations are what lets us detect the differences in accents and dialects, identify individuals, and differentiate tiny nuances of speech that indicate things beyond the obvious meanings of the words. The Vocal Tract In order to study the sounds of language, we first need to study the vocal tract. Speech starts with the lungs, which push air out and pull it in. The original purpose was, of course, to get oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide. But it is also essential for speech. There are phonemes that are little more than breathing: the h for example. Next, we have the larynx, or voice box. It sits at the juncture of the trachea or windpipe coming up from the lungs and the esophagous coming up from the stomach. In the larynx, we have an opening called the glottis, an epiglottis which covers the glottis when we are swallowing, and the vocal cords. The vocal cords consist of two flaps of mucous membrane stretched across the glottis, as in this photograph:

The vocal cords can be tightened and loosened and can vibrate when air is forced past them, creating sound. Some phonemes use that sound, and are called voiced. Examples include the vowels (a, e, i, o, and u, for example) and some of the consonants (m, l, and r, for example). Other phonemes do not involve the vocal cords, such as the consonants h, t, or s, and so are called unvoiced. The area above the glottis is called the pharynx, or upper throat. It can be tightened to make phryngeal consonants. English doesn’t have any of these, but they sound like when you try to get a piece of food back up out of your throat. At the top of the throat is the opening to the nasal passages (called the nasopharynx, in case you are interested). When we allow air to pass into the nose while speaking, the sounds we make are called nasal. Examples include m, n, and the ng sound of sing. Much of the action during speech occurs in the mouth, of course, especially involving the interaction of the tongue with the roof of the mouth. The roof of the mouth has several specific areas: At the very back, just before the nasal passage, is that little bag called the uvula. Its major function seems to be moisturizing the air and making certain sounds called, obviously, uvular. The best known is the kind of r pronounced in the back of the mouth by some French and German speakers. Uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal sounds are often refered to as gutterals.

sh. perhaps. Incidentally. and the back is called the dorsum. we have the soft palate. we make the two th sounds like this. you are using the velum. are the bilabial sounds. Just behind the teeth is the dental ridge or alveolus. We can also use the upper teeth with the lower lip. Sounds like t. Here is where many of us make our t’s and d’s -. we also have two names for the parts of the tongue used with these various parts of the mouth: The front edge is called the corona. n. At the lips we can make several sounds as well. making the bilabial nasal m. and s are made with the corona. When you say k or g. The simplest. Note that one of these is voiced (the th in the) and one is unvoiced (the th in thin). made by holding the lips together and then releasing the sound. This is how we make an f. such as s. for example. . called the velum. and are called palatals. or by keeping them together and releasing the air through the nose. g.alveolar consonants. you can feel how soft it is.Next. so they are called velar consonants. Further forward is the hard palate. for labiodental sounds. Quite a few consonants are made using the hard palate. Dental consonants are made by touching the tongue to the teeth. and ng are made with the dorsum. If you turn your tongue back as far as it will go and press up. At the very outer edge of the mouth we have the teeth and the lips. while k. th. such as p and b. and l. In English.

Stops. Velar plosives: k (unvoiced) and g (voiced) . g. ng. a. They are classified in a number of different ways. m. In English. Bilabial plosives: p (unvoiced) and b (voiced) b. and g. th. In English. v. n. Alveolar plosives: t (unvoiced) and d (voiced) c. ch. 1. dh. t. d. d. b. The air is blocked for a moment. the consonants are p. sh. zh. k. f.Consonants Consonants are sounds which involve full or partial blocking of airflow. z. b. depending on the vocal tract details we just discussed. they are p. s. w. then released. l. t. k. also known as plosives. r. and y. j.

In English. b. z. which means they are followed by a y before the vowel. bat. and the a in ago. cow. This is also called an on-glide. bait. as the name implies. pharyngeal. there is a distinction between a p pronounced crisply and an aspirated p. Labiodental fricatives: f (unvoiced) and v (voiced) Dental fricatives: th (as in thin -. we have l and r. which are both alveolar. and british pot 2. We use both in English (pit vs poo). In English. and the w in cow. we have w and y. bought. and oy). but it isn’t a distinction that separates one meaning from another. Affricates are sounds that involve a plosive followed immediately by a fricative at the same location. Nasals are sounds made with air passing through the nose. car. boat. plosives may be followed by aspiration. bird. Velar nasal: ng 5. yeah. sh. these are m.front. bit. and boy. and glottal plosives as well. the sounds in bait and boat are also diphthongs (with y and w off-glides. Semivowels are sounds that are. such as Russian. n. or back . and retroflex plosives. which you can see are a lot like vowels such as oo and ee. Liquids are sounds with very little air resistance. but. They are the ones found in these words: beet. In Chinese. a. for example. How far forward or backward in the mouth the tongue rises -. we touch the tip to the ridge of the teeth and let the air go around both sides. palatal. we find labiodental. boot. since they normally “glide” into or out of vowel positions (as in woo. bet. boot. ow. book. but the first parts of the diphthongs are different from the nearby sounds in bet and bought.unvoiced) and dh (as in the -. d. car. bird and a in ago low are bat. pot (in British English). Fricatives involve a slightly resisted flow of air. 4. mid. c. In English. but differ in the shape of the tongue.voiced) Alveolar fricatives: s (unvoiced) and z (voiced) Palatal fricatives: sh (unvoiced) and zh (like the s in vision -. Many consider these as blends: t-sh and d-zh. bought. For the r. Vowels There are about 14 vowels in English. Diphthongs involve off-glides. The height of the tongue in the mouth -. by a breathy sound like an h. e. 2. Note that there are many variations of l and r in other languages and even within English itself! 6.In other languages.voiced) Glottal fricative: h (unvoiced) 3.low. Vowels are classified in three dimensions: 1. center. In many languages. th. In English. Alveolar nasal: n c. and ng. these include f. For l. and h. there is a whole set of palatalized consonants. which involve reaching back to the palate with the corona of the tongue. bet. In English. we almost block the air on both sides and let it through at the top. we have ch (unvoiced) and j (voiced). but with the lips almost closed for w (a bilabial) and the tongue almost touching the palate for y (a palatal). respectively). There are also three diphthongs or double vowels: bite. s. In many languages. bit. but. Bilabial nasal: m b. They are also called glides. zh. uvular. boat. very nearly vowels. dh. and book mid are bait. v. a. or high high are beet. that is. Actually.: You can hear the y in bite and boy.

linguists have developed a complex chart of phonemes for transcribing the sounds of all languages around the world. you may remember the teacher telling you to say tea with your lips rounded for French tu. bet. It isn’t the best way to teach the sound. Vowels can be short or long. Consonants bilabial labio. these were simply vowels followed by nasal consonants. in which case you will have to look elsewhere for charts like this. there is another quality to vowels. In some languages. Some vowels are pronounced with airflow through the nose as well as the mouth. bought. The same goes for boot and book.such as the Japanese u. and a in ago back are boot. and that is nasality. If you took French in high school. that means your computer isn't equipt with unicode. There is one more dimension that doesn’t have much to do with English. and for caught and the British pot. bird. such as French. but is essential in many languages.front are beet.and many have unrounded back vowels -. book. But over time.palatal velar uvular glottal dental alveolar plosives uv. bait. and bat center are but. and much of it is in the charts below. bit. fricatives uv. It is called the International Phonetic Alphabet. and that is vowel length. IPA Over the years. If you get question marks or little squares. Originally. and british pot 3. and it is just a matter of how long you continue the sound. the French blended the vowels and the nasals into one unit. The closest we get in English is that the vowel in beet is longer (as well as higher) than the vowel in alveolar retroflex palato. but it shows you where it fits in the scheme. v. How rounded or unrounded the lips are the front vowels are unrounded the center and back vowels are rounded The rounding idea may seem unnecessary until you realize that many languages have rounded front vowels -such as the German ü and ö and the French u and eu -. nasals semivowels uv. boat. v. v. rolled/ trilled tapped/ flapped laterals p b Φ β m ʍ w в f v ɱ ʋ θ ð t d s z n ɹ r ɾ l ʈ ɖ ʂ ʐ ɳ ɻ ɽ ɭ ʃ ʒ c ɟ ç ʝ ɲ j k g x γ ŋ q ɢ χ ʁ ɴ ʔ h ɦ ʀ λ L .

ł ɮ Vowels front high central back middle low i ɪ e ɛ æ y ʏ ø œ a ɨ ʉ ɜ ə ɵ ɐ ʌ ɯ u ʊ ɤ o ɔ α ɒ Vowel length is marked with a colon after the vowel. because of the famous South African singer Miriam Makeba. v. biten. they mean the spirit. the bit. Clicks are sounds made by creating a vacuum with the tongue and then suddenly snapping the tongue away. tomten. and the battle. e.g. One syllable is usually given a higher pitch ("up" the musical scale) and sometimes a bit more force. and when we make a click in the side of our mouths when we tell a horse to get a move on. for example. The double tone is only found in two syllable words. In the double tone. This means that there is actual change of stress within syllables. Sometimes we can tell where a person is from by how they use stress: insurance is usually stressed on the sur. the building.g. Stress and Tones In many languages around the world. Single tone words don’t sound very unusual to English speakers. it is unstressed. that syllable is unstressed. Some other languages use dynamic stress or tones. we use it anyway. southerners stress it on the in. secondary with a low vertical line. The best known is the Bantu language Khosa. bitten. primary stress is indicated by preceding the syllable with a high vertical line. as in math-e-mat-ics: mat has the primary stress. the elf. and slaget mean the duck. respectively. e. including English. but one set is particularly interesting: clicks. there are two tones: The single tone starts high and goes down. In IPA. Clicks are used in the Bushman languages and in the Bantu languages that had prolonged contact with them. there may even be a second semi-stressed syllable. In Swedish. To our ears. words are differentiated by means of stress. In the single tone. The first pitch starts in the middle range of pitch and the second tone starts high and goes down. . This is how we differentiate af-fect (as in influence) and af-fect (as in emotion).” when we make clucking sounds. But many languages do not use stress at all. Swedish is an example. Note that even when we do not need to use stress to differentiate words. We use these ourselves. anden. math has the secondary stress. ã There are dozens more phonemes beyond the ones in the preceding charts. The double tone gives the word a sing-song quality to English speakers. In longer words. If a single toneword has a second syllable.lateral -fricatives uv. If there is a third syllable. they sound rather monotone. These tones differentiate many words in Swedish. though not as parts of words: When we “tsk tsk. i: Nasal vowels are shown by placing a tilde over the vowel.

ˇ. but are not tonal. Of course a linguist from China might ask how non-tonal languages lost their tones! One interesting tidbit is that tonality often crosses family lines. There are five of them: Tone 1 -. for example. and scold. high short.middle. then rising (as in mom!? spoken by a whining teenager) Tone 4 -. On the other hand. low. then rising tone. the four tones are indicated by ¯. then falling (as in Tom spoken by a disappointed mom) For example.high. high falling. only has four. a relative of Vietnamese. respectively! English uses dynamic stress or tones also. Thai. such as the rising pitch at the end of questions. has nine tones. Most African languages are tonal. Many believe that it has to do with phonemes or even whole syllables that have been lost. and in fact are called tonal languages. In Asia. spoken in Nigeria. with tone 2 it means to suspect. respectively. Tibetan and Burmese are related to Chinese. which has lost those endings. Thai has five tones: high. then rising (as in was it you?) Tone 3 -. Hausa. It is the tones that prevent every syllable from having hundreds of meanings. With tone 1 it means cloth. horse. C. And Chinese uses a very limitied number of phonemes. each syllable has a particular meaning. But many languages in Africa and Asia use far more complex tones. ´. and `. which has kept many old consonant endings.which are unrelated languages. And ma means mother. falling. or was original to an area before being invaded by speakers of another language. but Swahili is not. middle falling. middle long. In the official transcription. but only one whole phrases. with tone 3 it means chair. It is possible that one or another language family influenced others around it. none.middle. middle. but influenced the pronounciation anyway. © Copyright 2005. But this makes it hard to explain that Cantonese. adding a falling. tonality is found in Chinese. Cantonese has nine tones: high long.and beaten. middle short. low short.high and level (as in hey!) Tone 2 -. and fog. rising. five. but relatives like Arabic are not. The syllable wu means house. Although words are often more than one syllable in length. neither is Khmer. George Boeree . hemp. while its relative Mandarin Chinese. and Vietnamese -. low long. and with tone 4 it means meaning. We don't know how tonal languages arise. and falling. the simple syllable yi can mean many different things. The African language Katamba has six. is tonal. Chinese is the best known example. and low rising.

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