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What Is Phonetic Transcription?

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  • Written By: Lee Johnson
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Phonetic transcription is the process of transcribing words according to their specific phonetic pronunciations. The practice of using phonetic pronunciations in transcribed speech is useful for linguists and people who are learning a new language. Phonetic transcription employs special characters to show the difference in the pronunciation of certain words. For example, the word “trap” would be written as “træp” to differentiate it from other “a” sounds in words such as “fair.”

The study of phonetics in language is all about the sounds of the words. Linguists study many aspects of the sounds of words, from the part of the mouth that is used during the pronunciation to the type of sound that is produced by those movements. Phonetics can be a useful tool for many people, and dictionaries employ phonetic translations of words along with the written version to show how they should be pronounced. The English language is particularly complicated in this respect, because words can have different pronunciations despite being spelled the same, such as “minute” being a noun that refers to a period of time as well as an adjective that means "small." The ways in which American pronunciation differs from British pronunciation also can be shown through phonetics.

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Differentiating between British and American English using phonetic transcription is a good way for one to understand the basics of the system. The word “dot” in British English, is pronounced with the “o” sound being similar to that found in the word “lot” or “odd.” In American English, the same word is pronounced with the same type of “o” sound that is found in words such as “start” or “father.” The ability of phonetic transcription to show the differences between the specific pronunciations of words is the reason why it is particularly useful to linguists, who study the evolution and usage of language. If a linguist wanted to show how Texan pronunciations differ from Californian pronunciations, the use of phonetic language would be the only way to do so in a structured, written fashion.

Other sounds and aspects of speech that are missing from the written language also can be conveyed through phonetic transcription. One particularly good example of this is stress, or emphasis, which can be applied to entire words or to specific parts of words. Phonetic language has a particular symbol — similar to an apostrophe — that is used to show stress and, importantly, can be added to the specific part of the word that should be stressed.

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