Articulatory Phonetics

Author: Linda Shockey


Most Articulatory Phonetics courses involve learning to produce and transcribe the sounds represented in a phonetic alphabet. The advantage is that phoneticians have a very widely-understood system of representation. The drawback is that alphabetic systems do not lend themselves to the description of all phonetic phenomena.

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Most articulatory phonetics courses focus on learning an alphabetic transcription system, the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA ( being the most commonly used. These systems are especially good at capturing segmental aspects of speech sounds such as place and manner of articulation and voicing.

Training in articulatory phonetics should allow students to recognise and transcribe all sounds which are used linguistically. This includes sounds produced on non-pulmonic airstream mechanisms (i.e. ejectives, clicks,and implosives), sounds produced with a range of voice types (breathy, creaky, whispered), secondary articulations such as palatalisation, pharyngealisation, nasalisation, and labialisation, and double articulations such as found in the English [w] and other labiovelar sounds.

Students are normally taught in small groups where their production and perception can be carefully monitored. While the goal of ear training is to be able to transcribe natural speech sounds, practical classes often involve the creation and pronunciation of sequences of phonetic symbols ("nonsense words/syllables") which are not necessarily reflected in any real language, and learning to produce and perceive them is regarded as a basic skill. Obviously, ear training also involves transcription of genuine though unfamiliar language material. This should include disordered speech or the speech of young children, which often cannot be represented using the set of symbols for sounds known to be in use in languages. Students should be encouraged to create new symbols and descriptions as the need arises: a phonetic alphabet thus serves as a platform for transcription but does not limit the ultimate type and number of symbols used. Online material such as that produced by Ladefoged and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (, allows for fruitful practice outside of tutorial groups. When possible, articulatory phonetics courses should be supported by courses in instrumental phonetics.

Alphabetic transcription systems provide a basis for creating writing systems for unwritten languages, but phoneticians are sometimes skeptical about them, for a variety of reasons. Categories are sometimes unclear (for example, what is the real difference between a voiceless [l] and a voiceless lateral fricative?) and features such as tongue shape are not easily represented except for retroflex sounds. Also, an alphabetic system gives the impression that speech sounds are produced one at time, though it is well known (cf Pike, 1943; Firth, 1948) that features are present continuously through what can be thought of as several segments. The word 'woman', for example, has voicing throughout and in most cases nasalisation: the ascription of these features to each segment independently obscures this fact as well as making extra work. Phoneticians such as Local and Ogden (http://; are thus developing a nonsegmental, parametric transcription system (cf Kelly and Local, 1989). The system may, however, prove difficult to assimilate for all but advanced students.

Alphabetic systems in general fall short in representing suprasegmental features of speech. Stress, tone, quantity, and intonation normally involve more than one segment and are normally relative rather than absolute. The TOBI system ( for representing intonation has become very popular, though it depends on considerable abstraction by the transcriber and is thus not purely phonetic.


Firth, J.R. (1948) Sounds and Prosodies. Transactions of the Philological Society. Reprinted in Firth, J.R. (1957) Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. Also reprinted in Palmer, F.R. ed. (1970) Prosodic Analysis.

Pike K.L. (1943) Phonetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kelly, J. and Local, J. (1989) Doing Phonology. Manchester University Press.

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