What Are the Elements of English Phonetics?

Jessica Reed

In linguistics, the study of language, phonetics is a particular branch that examines how humans make different sounds when talking. English phonetics looks at the various sounds used when pronouncing certain letters or words, and is typically broken down into two categories of pronunciation: consonants and vowels. Within each category exists specific terms that describe exactly how a person manipulates his or her tongue, vocal cords, lips, and other parts of the mouth and throat to pronounce the desired sound. The physical body parts used to create these sounds are referred to as articulators.

There are far fewer vowels than consonants in the English alphabet.
There are far fewer vowels than consonants in the English alphabet.

Consonants in English phonetics are further broken down into three distinct categories of pronunciation known as manner, place, and voice. Manner is how the sound is pronounced, place refers to how a person moves the articulators to produce that sound, and voice looks at whether or not the vocal cords must vibrate to make a specific sound. Each category of consonants is further divided into sub-categories.

Stressed syllables play a cruicial role in English phonetics.
Stressed syllables play a cruicial role in English phonetics.

Sub-categories of manner include categories such as stop, nasal, and glide, which describe how the articulators and the air stream are manipulated to form a sound. The letter "B" is an example of a stop while the letter "W" is an example of a glide. Place includes terms such as bilabial and labiodental, which refer to touching the lips together and touching the bottom lip to the top teeth, respectively. Voice includes only two sub-categories: voiced and voiceless. Voiced consonants cause vibration of the vocal cords while voiceless letters, like the letter "P," do not require any vibration of the vocal cords to pronounce.

Vowels in English phonetics consist of fewer categories than consonants due to how many fewer vowels exist in the English alphabet. The primary categories for vowel pronunciation include monophthongs and diphthongs. Monophthongs reference the sound of one individual vowel and are categorized as front, central, or back. These categories refer to the position of the tongue when forming the vowel sound. The second category, diphthongs, refers to the pronunciation of two vowels together almost as one sound and is not divided into any sub-categories.

As in many other languages, stressed syllables also play a crucial role in English phonetics. Desert and dessert, for example, are two words that are pronounced the same but place emphasis on different parts of the word. Desert, referring to a hot, dry region, places stress on the front of the word while dessert, a sweet treat, places stress on the end of the word. This allows listeners to understand which word the speaker is referring to.

The tongue, teeth and lips are part of a person's articulators.
The tongue, teeth and lips are part of a person's articulators.

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Discussion Comments


I know speech therapists do a lot of work with phonetics, since they often work on helping people speak more clearly, and if they understand what produces a particular sound, and how, they may be able to diagnose whether the person has a defect with that body part, or if their speech defect is hearing related. This will determine how they help the person with their speech.

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