Phonetics (from the Greek φωνή (phōnḗ), “sound” or “voice”) is the study of speech sounds. The science of phonetics aims to describe all the sounds of all the world’s languages. There are three types of the study of the sounds of language:

  1. Acoustic Phonetics is the study of the physical properties of the sounds of language.
  2. Auditory Phonetics is the study of the way listeners perceive the sounds of language.
  3. Articulatory Phonetics is the study of how the vocal tracts produce the sounds of language.

The linguistic aspect is proper to the phonetics called functional phonetics, sometimes called phonemic; in particular, descriptive phonetics was called the description of the sounds of a language, regardless of their historical origin, and historical phonetics was called the study of their historical evolution and their development in time and space. At present the various aspects of functional phonetics are included in the term phonology.

Experimental phonetics

The study of the physiological, acoustic and perceptual aspects of phonetics makes extensive use of instrumental apparatus and therefore constitutes the object of so-called experimental phonetics. Experimental phonetics is based on a logical organization and classification of linguistic units. At first, the observation and analysis of the sound phenomenon are correlated with the muscular movement and the corresponding nervous activity, classifying the data thus obtained; the same phenomena are then studied under the influence of particular conditions.

At the basis of this study are two facts: the spoken message, for the linguistic aspect, is a succession of discrete units (words, syllables, letters), while, for the phonetic and acoustic aspect, the physiological activity is continuous at all levels; the relationship between linguistic and physiological units on the one hand and sound events on the other is always statistical: to a given linguistic unit, for example a word, corresponds a wide range of physiological behaviors and sound characters, either for different subjects or for a single subject at different times and under different influences.

Schematically, one can divide experimental phonetics into three parts: study of phonation, analysis and synthesis of voice, and problems of perception. The study of phonation has an electrophysiological aspect (detection of action potentials in the muscles of the glottis, mouth, nose) and an aspect concerning phonatory exhalation.

The study of the movements of the vocal cords (glottal signal) is particularly important and is carried out with oscilloscopic, photographic, cinematographic, X-ray and laryngoscope methods. The glottal signal can be obtained as an electrical signal, i.e. as a signal modulating an alternating current of high frequency and low intensity that passes through the throat, between two electrodes placed on the neck, near the vocal cords; the glottal signal is obtained by demodulation. The dimensions of the vocal tract during phonation are obtained by X-ray.

Related keywords

  • International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
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