The subject of Phonetics. Phonetics in the System of linguistics


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

Neither linguistic theory nor linguistic practice can do without Phonetics. Phonetics is connected with linguistic and non-linguistic sciences: acoustics, physiology, psychology, logic and others. When we look at the parts of the body which are used in speaking, we make use of information from anatomy...



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  1.  The subject of Phonetics. Phonetics in the System of linguistics.
  2.  Methods of Phonetics.
  3.  Theoretical Significance and Practical Application.

1. The Subject of Phonetics. Phonetics in the System of Linguistics.

The term Phonetics comes from Greek and means “sound of voice”. It is an independent branch of linguistics like lexicology, grammar, stylistics and others. It is one of the oldest (it began to develop in the 19 century and it’s actually not new) branches of linguistics.

Neither linguistic theory nor linguistic practice can do without Phonetics. Phonetics is connected with linguistic and non-linguistic sciences: acoustics, physiology, psychology, logic and others. When we look at the parts of the body which are used in speaking, we make use of information from anatomy and physiology; the study of the transmission of speech sounds from speaker to hearer is related to acoustics, which is a branch of physics; when we look at how we hear and understand spoken messages, we are in the territory of other subjects including audiology (the study of hearing mechanism) and cognitive psychology (the study of how the brain receives and processes information).

It studies the spoken aspect of languages and its subject is therefore a scientific analysis of the entire system of oral means expressing thoughts and emotions of the speaker. In short it is concerned with human noises by which the thought is actualized. While Practical Phonetics studies the substance, the material form of phonetic phenomena, Theoretical Phonetics is mainly concerned with the functioning of phonetic units in the language.

The great British scholar Henry Sweet described phonetics as “the indispensable foundation” for the study of language and that view is as valid today as it was a hundred years ago.

Phonetics formulates the rules of pronunciation, rules of reading, sound interchange, word stress, sentence stress and intonation.

Rules of reading, intonation and sound interchange connect Phonetics with Grammar. The rules of reading are based on the relation of sounds to orthography:

E.x. dog – dogs /z/

start – starts /s/,

CD – CDs,

create - creates

Sound interchange displays the connection of phonetics with grammar.

In the example: wolf-wolves, man-men, goose – geese the interchange helps to distinguish the singular and plural forms of the words.

In the example: sing-sang-sung, ring-rang-rung vowel interchange can help to distinguish between the forms of the verb “to sing” and ”to ring”.

In the following examples sound interchange helps to distinguish between:

-    nouns and verbs: bath – bathe

  •  adjectives and nouns: hot  - heat
  •  verbs and adjectives: to moderate – moderate

Intonation component helps to single out the logical center of the sentence:

I’d like a cup of herbal TEA. (sounds like a simple request)

I’d like a cup of HERBAL tea. (not any other sort of tea)

I’d like a CUP of herbal tea. (not a mug)

The connection of Phonetics and Lexicology helps us to distinguish words one from another with the help of different sounds and stress position.

E.x.  object – to object,         present – to present,    suspect – to suspect,         subject – to subject.

The connection of Phonetics and Stylistics is evident in onomatopoeia (sound imitation) and in alliteration (sound repetition).  

Direct onomatopoeia – слова, подражающие звуки в природе. (sounds, produced in nature).

Indirect onomatopoeia – отдельные звуки, используемые для создания эффекта. (to form the effect of imitation).

E.x. to hush – призывать  к тишине.

to moo – мычать.     to tinkle – звенеть.

to clap – to crash – to bang.

The examples of alliteration produce the effect of rhyme.

The relation between phonetics and Social Studies should also be mentioned. Any language is not an isolated phenomenon, it is a part of society and a part of ourselves. No branch of linguistics can be studied without presupposing at least the study of other aspects of society. The way phonetics overlaps with other academic studies has become well appreciated over the last few years when we have witnessed the development of diachronic linguistics, comparative linguistics, antropological linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and sociophonetics correspondingly.

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in relation to social factors, that is, social class, educational level and type of education, age, sex, ethnic origin. It may include the detailed study of interpersonal communication: Speech acts, Speech events, Sequencing of Utterances and also those variations in the language used by a group of people relating to social factors= Sociolect.  E.g.

He and I were going there (higher sociolect).

Im’n me was goin’ there (lower sociolect).

Sociophonetics studies the ways in which pronunciation interacts with society. It is the study of the way in which phonetic structures change in response to different social functions. It is a component of Sociolinguistics.

Thus, the study of the production, perception and analysis of speech sounds is called Phonetics.

Linguists distinguish between: Special Phonetics (studies the sounds of one language of a certain period of time) and General Phonetics (studies the system of several languages). General Phonetics is based on the material provided by Special Phonetics.

The two main approaches are: diachronical (a historical approach in its historical development) and synchronical (a descriptive approach).

E.g. Diachronic approach studies how the sound system of English changed from Early English to Modern British English.

In other words we speak about descriptive phonetics and historical phonetics. Descriptive phonetics studies the contemporary phonetic system of one language in its static form. Historical phonetics deals with the development of the phonetic system of a language.

2. Methods of Phonetics.

The methods of investigation used in Phonetics vary but there are 3 principle groups of methods: the first – is the direct observation method. The second – is the linguistic method  and the third – experimental method.

The first method comprises three important modes of phonetic analysis  - by ear, by sight and by muscular sensation. Thus, the capability to distinguish the exact quality of sounds pronounced in various sound sequences or in isolation is known for the “phonetic ear”. “ By sight” -  means the use of the hand -mirror in order to observe the movements and positions of one’s own or other people’s speech organs. This method helps to distinguish the slightest variation in sound quality. This process can be combined, analyzing one’s own muscular sensation during articulation: lip movement, some tongue movement; combined with X-ray photography or X-ray cinematography etc. This method is mainly used in articulatory phonetics. The methods applied in auditory phonetics are those of experimental psychology.

The linguistic method investigates any concrete phonetic phenomenon (sound, stress, intonation). With the help of this method we determine the way in which these phonetic features are used in a language to convey a certain meaning. This method tries to interpret the linguistic function of the phonetic phenomenon. The linguistic method is mainly used in Phonology and in General Phonetics.

The third, the experimental method is based upon the use of special devices and instruments which allow various instrumental techniques. These techniques are:

- spectography – spectograph is an instru,ment used in acoustic phonetics. It gives a visual representation of a sound showing its component frequences.

  •  palatography – here an articulation palate is used;
  •  laryngoscopy – here a laryngoscope is used;
  •  technique photography – cinematography and X-ray photography.

Special laboratory equipment helps to obtain the necessary data about acoustic properties of speech sounds. The use of such technical devices as spectopraph, intonograph and other sound analyzing and sound synthesizing machines is generally combined with the method of direct observation and is applied in acoustic phonetics.

3. Theoretical Significance and Practical Application.

Theoretical significance of Phonetics is connected with the further development of the problem of the synchronic study and description of the phonetic system, the problem of comparative analysis and description of different languages and diachronic description of successive changes in the phonetic systems of different languages. The growing interest in phonetics is partly due to increasing recognition of the central position of language in every line of social activity. Phonetics has considerable social value.

The sphere of practical application of phonetics is rather wide. Its practical use is not only connected with teaching foreign languages or mother tongue, but it is also used in methods of correcting speech defects, in teaching deaf mutes, in training actors, teachers singers, broadcasting and film-dubbing, in transliteration. Ear training and articulatory training are both important in modern language teaching.

Phonetics has become important in a number of technological fields connected with communication. On the research side much work in phonetics entails the use of apparatus and is concerned with the basic characteristics of human speech. For those who work in speech therapy, which handles pathological conditions of speech, phonetics forms an essential part of the professional training syllabus. The role of phonetics is extremely useful in the following spheres: investigations in the historical aspects of languages, in the field of dialectology, designing or improving systems of writing or spelling, in questions involving the spelling or pronunciation of personal or place names or of words borrowed from other languages.


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