Phonetics as a scientific study of speech Contents

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Phonetics as a scientific study of speech

  1. The objectives of phonetics

  2. Speech communication

  3. Areas of phonetic studies

  4. Information conveyed in speech

  5. Types of communication

  6. The semiotic framework (Laver, Principles of Phonetics, 1994): linguistic code and signs

  7. Pattern (form) and variability (substance)

  8. Phonetics vs. Phonology

  9. Linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic communication

  10. Summary

  1. The objectives of phonetics

Phonetics generally aim at investigation of speech communication by recording, describing and interpreting articulated utterances:

  • speech communication – a code

  • spoken utterances – signs of this coded system

  • speech communication is effective only between people skilled in the production and interpretation of the relevant signs

  • speech communication can be analyzed at various levels as it carries information of a different type

  1. Speech communication

On the part of the sender (i.e. the person who produces speech) speech communication consists in manipulation of the speech signal in such a way as to produce an appropriate pattern or linguistic form which encodes the intended message:

The message reaches the listener. The listener decodes the linguistic form of the message and receives information of a different type:

  1. Areas of phonetic studies

Articulatory phonetics

Acoustic phonetics

Auditory phonetics

construction and function of the speech organs (larynx, vocal cords, tongue, lips, etc.)

the acoustic structure of speech - frequencies, intensities, spectra, etc.

construction and function of the hearing organs

the use of the speech apparatus to produce the speech sounds

high-precision measuring and recording instruments

mechanisms by which the signs are perceived by the speaker using the auditory channel

vocal tract2.jpg



  1. Information conveyed in speech


  • direct meaning of a spoken utterance (the propositional content of the communicative acts of conversation)

  • the more complex the semantic information, the more likely it is going to be communicated by spoken words e.g. “come here” can be signaled solely by a hand movement (only visual channel)

Evidential information is carried by those aspects of speech signal and utterance which allow the listener to attribute personal features to the speaker:

  • physical markers (e.g. sex, age, state of health) conveyed by voice quality and prosody

  • social markers (e.g. regional affiliation, educational and social status, occupation) signaled by accent, vocabulary, dialect

  • psychological markers (personality, affective state, mood) conveyed by prosody and voice quality

Regulative information is related to the organization of conversation (interaction) between speakers and it refers to person’s desire to retain or to yield the role of the speaker during the conversation:

  • it enables to control the time-sharing of the interaction and to regulate turn taking and giving in a conversation

  • it is controlled by special mechanisms which serve the function of maintaining or stopping the interaction

  • it is specific to a given language community (we learn how to signal turn taking and turn giving when we learn a foreign language)

  • it is signaled by prosody (intonation, timing) and by non-vocal and non-verbal behavior (e.g. eye contact, head movement)

  1. Types of communication


  • audible

  • imparts semantic, evidential and regulative information


  • visual

  • imparts evidential and regulative information

  • uses gesture, posture, head and body movements, facial expression, gaze, eye contact

  • except for facial expression (which is universal), the other aspects of the non-vocal behavior are particular to the culture of the speaker

  • the non-vocal aspects lie outside the scope of phonetics


  • by means of verbal elements: vowels, consonants and word stress that serve to identify individual words as units of spoken language

  • verbal elements are linguistic


  • by means of non-verbal elements: intonation and stress (used for emphasis) that serve function other than that of the verbal identification

  • non-verbal elements are linguistic, paralinguistic or non-linguistic

Facial expression, gesture, posture, head and body movements, gaze and eye contact are all non-vocal and non-verbal.

Properties of the speech signal have communicative and/or informative functions:

  • Communicative: information intended by the sender to make the receiver aware of something of which he was not previously aware.

  • Informative: make the receiver aware of something of which he was not previously aware regardless of the intention of the sender.

  1. The semiotic framework (Laver, Principles of Phonetics, 1994)

We communicate using a linguistic code that consists of arbitrary signs such as words, vowels and consonants. The link between the arbitrary sign and the referent (i.e. the object that it refers to) is culturally determined and the relationship between them is one-to-many:

arbitrary signs.jpg

arbitrary signs2.jpg

However, spoken communication has also another layer which is non-linguistic and consists of non-arbitrary signs, e.g. there is a direct link between pitch level and physical attributes of the speaker, where higher overall pitch is associated with smaller vocal folds indicating a female speaker and a child, and lower overall pitch is associated with larger vocal folds and indicates a male speaker.

An example of a non-arbitrary sign (temperature) associated with a warmer season and generally nice weather:

non-arbitrary signs.jpg
Speech communication can be regarded as a dual-level code, because every linguistic message (utterance) is generated at two levels: grammatical and phonological.
Grammatical level:

  • abstract grammatical elements such as words, phrases, clauses and sentences

    • made up of combination of phonological units

    • represent the entities in the external semantic world

Phonological level:

  • abstract phonological elements

    • they act as building blocks for the construction of the higher-level grammatical units

    • segmental elements such as vowels and consonants (speech sounds) and suprasegmental units such as syllables, rhythmic units (syllables, feet, morae) and units of intonation and tone (i.e. the distinction between stress, tone and accent)

The objective of phonetics is to describe speech sounds and to explore and explain their relationship with the phonological level of the linguistic structure.

  1. Pattern (Form ) and variability (substance)

Words, vowels and consonants which constitute arbitrary signs in Laver’s semiotic framework of can also be regarded as patterns.

Patterns are abstract concepts that represent linguistic units. They have to be realized (pronounced) or manifested (written) to exist in the real world.
Variability is an inherent characteristic of pronunciation both within and between speakers. However, despite the variability listeners able to discern the distinctive patterns in speech sounds that identify the phonological units involved. Even in real, spontaneous speech which very often lacks full patterns the human perception is capable of reconstituting the intended message from partial clues – this is possible, because listeners rely on their phonological and grammatical knowledge, for example:
Reduced utterance: She sh---d -v- giv-n -im the package.

Full utterance: She should have given him the package.

The terms pattern and variability are tightly related to two other terms, namely form and substance.

Form means the same as pattern: it represents a linguistic unit (e.g. vowel /a/) and needs to be realized or manifested to exist in the real world (e.g. /a/ needs to be pronounced by a speaker).

Substance refers to the realization of the pattern/form and entails variability: every single pronunciation of a vowel is different from the others.


  1. Phonetics vs. Phonology

The distinction between phonetics and phonology is related to the distinction between form and substance (or pattern and variability).

Phonetics and phonology both concern themselves with the form and the substance, but vary in their primary focus:

  • phonetics –> substance (realization of formal symbolic patterns and features conveying evidential and regulative information)

  • phonology –> form

  1. Linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic communication

As mentioned at the beginning speech communication can be analyzed at various levels and provides information of a different type.

Linguistic communication can be regarded as the basic form of communication and consists in using the dual-level code of the spoken language made up of the phonological and grammatical units. It provides semantic information (i.e. the meaning of the utterance).

Linguistic communication can be described as vocal, verbal, communicative and informative.

Paralinguistic communication is realized primarily by prosody and also by voice quality. Unlike in the linguistic communication in the paralinguistic communication non-vocal elements play an important role. It has two objectives: to carry the information about the attitudinal, affective or emotional state and to regulate the time-sharing of the conversation.

Paralinguistic communication can be described as vocal, non-vocal, verbal, non-verbal, communicative and informative.

Non-linguistic communication is realized by prosody (especially pitch) and voice quality, but in a different way than these speech properties are used to communicate paralinguistic information: In non-linguistic communication speaker is not capable of controlling pitch or voice quality. Non-linguistic communication provides evidential information concerning physical attributes of the speaker.

This type of communication is non-coded, non-communicative and informative.

Most often social, psychological and physical characteristics are related to the linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic communication. However, there is no direct correspondence between types of information conveyed in speech and the three types of communication. For example a loud resonant voice (a property that clearly signals information other than linguistic) can be associated with an authoritative personality (psychological marker -> paralinguistic information), but it can be the outcome of a large and powerful physique (physical marker -> non-linguistic information).

  1. Summary

The objectives of phonetics can be summarized as follows:

  • description of speech sounds and speech communication (linguistic code)

  • investigation and description of the production, perception and physics of speech sounds (arbitrary signs)

  • investigation of physical markers of spoken communicate (non-arbitrary signs)

  • investigation and explanation of the relationship between speech sounds and the phonological level of the linguistic structure

  • vocal behavior including verbal and non-verbal communication

  • aspects of linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic communication

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