What is Phonetics‏‎?


Image of a sound bite.Phonetics is the branch of linguistics‏‎ which studies the sounds of speech and they way in which they are interpreted. Contrast this with phonology‏‎ which is the study of the sound system of a language.

Phonetics looks at the way in which sounds are produced (the position of the tongue, the lips, etc) and the way in which sounds are perceived (i.e. the way in which the ear works) and interpreted by the brain.


In practical terms, phonetics deals with pronunciation of English‏‎. There is, of course, no single pronunciation which is correct but instead a number of variations: American English‏‎, Australian English‏‎, British English and so on. Some differences between these variants are due to pronunciation but others are due to grammatical differences.

Alongside the pronunciation of different sounds in English is stress, that is which syllable‏‎ is stressed in a word‏‎ or which word is stressed in a sentence‏‎ along with the general intonation‏‎ used.


Of critical importance in the study of phonetics is the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. Knowledge of this will enable anyone to pronounce English accurately and also explain to others how to pronounce English accurately.

There are numerous reasons why to use the IPA including:

  • having a standard from which to teach
  • allowing students to use their dictionaries‏‎ more effectively
  • giving the teacher a shortcut reference to explain to students certain sounds

Selective Sounds

Teachers can be selective in which sounds they teach and focus on. For example, the most common sound in English is the schwa which is represented thus: /ə/ (similar to a reversed and upside-down letter ‘e’). If the students learn this symbol only it will help with their pronunciation of numerous words: taken, medium, brother and so on.

See Also

Dearest Creature in Creation‏‎  – the pronunciation poem

Pronunciation Snake‏‎ – pronunciation activity

Image © aaronpki

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