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The subject of theoretical phonetics

The term “phonetics” is derived from the Greek language. Phonetics is often defined as a branch of linguistics dealing with the phonetic structure of a language. It means that phonetics studies:

1) the sounds, their classification and distribution;

2) the syllabic structure of words, i.e. syllable formation and syllable division;

3) the accentual structure of words, its nature, place and degree;

4) the intonational structure of sentences.

Phonetics is concerned with the study of all the above mentioned components from different points of view, the most important of them being the functional one.

As a branch of linguistics phonetics occupies a peculiar position. Though it is an independent science and develops according to its own laws, it is connected with a number of other linguistic and non-linguistic sciences.

The linguistic sciences study the language from different viewpoints. Lexicology treats of the vocabulary of a language, of its origin, meaning and word-building. Grammar studies the structure of a language and the rules governing the combination of words into sentences. Stylistics means the study of style. The history of the language traces its historical development. Phonetics is connected with them because lexical, grammatical and other phenomena are expressed phonetically. They cannot exist outside phonetics.

Phonetics is connected with grammar as it helps to pronounce correctly singular and plural forms of nouns, the past indefinite and the past participle forms of verbs and other endings, as in: pens, books, classes, asks – asked, lives – lived, Nick’s, teacher’s, etc.

It is connected with grammar also through sound interchange, as in: wife – wives, path – paths, house – houses, man – men, mouse – mice, tooth – teeth, etc.

One and the same sentence may have different meanings when pronounced with different terminal tones.

e.g. Isn’t it wonderful? (general question)

Isn’t it wonderful! (exclamation)

Mary is right. (statement)

Mary is right? (general question)

Phonetics is connected with lexicology through the accentual structure of English words in which verbs are formed from nouns by conversion.

e. g. subject – to subject

import – to import

record – to record

Phonetics is connected with stylistics through intonation which serves to express different emotions and to distinguish between different attitudes on the part of the speaker or reader.

Phonetics is connected with physics because speech like any other sounds in nature are acoustic phenomena and may be studied from the point of view of their physical properties.

The articulation of sounds and their perception are connected with anatomy and psychology.

Historical phonetics is connected with general history and the history of the people whose language is studied.

The study of intonation is impossible without a good knowledge of logic.

Phonology is connected with communication theory and statistics.

Language is often defined as the most important means of human intercourse. Language can perform this function only as a language of science because spoken words in all languages consist of speech sounds, and speech without words is impossible. Letters only represent spoken words in writing.

The materialistic conception of language is based on the thesis that language can exist only in the material form of speech sounds.

Human speech sounds are of a complex nature and they may be viewed from 4 points: articulatory, auditory, acoustic and functional. These are the aspects of speech sounds. They all function simultaneously and cannot be separated from one another. But each of them can be singled out only for purposes of linguistic analysis. Thus, phonetics as a science has developed a number of its own branches: physiological phonetics, which treats of the articulation and perception of sounds, acoustic phonetics, which studies the physical nature of speech sounds, and phonology, which is concerned with the study of functions of different phonetic phenomena. Each of these branches of phonetics has its own methods of investigation and its own terminology.

From the point of view of its articulation every speech sound is a complex unity of definite movements and positions of speech organs. It is physiological phonetics which deals with the study, description and classification of speech sounds. It is the oldest and the most developed branch of phonetics. Its oldest and simplest method of investigation is the method of direct observation, which may be visual and auditory. It consists in observing the movements and positions of people’s speech organs while pronouncing various sounds, and in comparing them with the auditory impressions. It is considered to be a subjective method of investigation. Besides, objective methods are also used in physiological phonetics. Objective methods make wide use of gramophones, cassette-recorders, photography, cinematography, laryngoscopy, X-ray photography, X-ray cinematography and others.

Physiological phonetics also studies the auditory aspect of speech sounds. There is an especially close connection between the articulatory and auditory aspects, because when man pronounces speech sounds they are perceived not only by the listener but the speaker himself too.

Different articulations produce different auditory impressions; hence, they produce different acoustic effects. Thus, speech sounds have a physical, or acoustic aspect. Like any other sound in nature, a speech sound is a physical phenomenon, a form of moving matter and energy.

Speech sounds are the basic units of any language because they make up the material forms of all the morphemes and words. That is why speech sounds may be considered the basic component of the sound matter of language.

The branch of phonetics, which is concerned with the study of the acoustic aspect of speech sounds, is called acoustic phonetics. It is one of the youngest sciences and deals with the physical properties of a sound. The principal methods used in acoustic phonetics are experimental ones. The physical properties of a sound are: 1) fundamental frequency, 2) intensity, and 3) time.

There is a close connection between acoustic and auditory aspects of speech sounds. Care should be taken not to confuse the terminology which is used in them.


1-кесте – Terminology used in auditory and acoustic aspects

Auditory aspect Acoustic aspect
Pitch or musical tone Loudness of a sound Duration or length Fundamental frequency Intensity Time


The fundamental frequency of a sound, as an acoustic property, is perceived by us as its pitch or tone. The intensity of a sound corresponds to its loudness. The time or temporal component is perceived as the duration or length of a speech sound.

The acoustic properties are investigated by means of the following instrumental techniques; the intonograph, the sound spectograph, the cassette-recorder and others.

The functional aspect of speech sounds (and of all the other phonetic phenomena) is studied by phonology, which is a comparatively new branch of phonetics. The first linguist who founded this branch of phonetics was prof. I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay (1845 – 1929), a prominent Polish-Russian linguist.

Speech sounds are functional units of a language. The role of speech sounds lies in the fact that they can be used to differentiate words, like /bæk/ - /bæg/; /rait/ - /mait/, etc.

Speech sounds taken in isolation do not mean anything, though some of them may constitute morphemes or even words, as in the case of /s/, /z/ and /t/, /d/ which are variants of certain English morphemes (e.g. /buks/, /a:skt/), and /a:/, /ә/ which are the grammatical forms of the verb “to be”. But such cases are rare. More commonly morphemes and words consist of a number of speech sounds.

Speech sounds and all the other phonetic phenomena fulfill 3 main functions: constitutive, distinctive and recognitive.

The constitutive function of speech sounds is proved by the fact that speech sounds constitute all morphemes, syllables, words, phrases, sentences and as well as complete utterances.

Distinctive function lies in the fact that one word (or morpheme) is differentiated from another word (or morpheme) by a difference in their number of speech sounds. One or more speech sounds in one word are opposed to one or more speech sounds in another word.

Recognitive function consists in the use of the right allophones in words. It means that in the word “twice” /t/ should be rounded and not plosionless or unaspirated. Whereas in the word “state” /t/ must be unaspirated and not rounded. The use of the right allophones makes it easy to recognize words and to understand speech properly.



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