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How speech sounds work (let’s talk phonetics!)

2022-07-21 20_48_52-Window

Sound waves, vocal cords, and tongue twirls – oh my! 

Have you ever stopped to think about how weird it is that we make sounds with our mouth and somehow that ends up as…meaning? It’s almost magical. One person has an idea in their head and they can communicate it to others through movements of their lips and twirls of their tongue. If learning about language piques your curiosity, then buckle up, because in this article, we’re taking you on a journey into the fascinating field of phonetics! You’ll get to discover some of the magic behind how speech sounds work and learn about the wide-reaching (yet little-known) impact our t’s and ch’s actually have on our everyday lives. By the end, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what phonetics is, how speech sounds work, and why it all matters.

QUICK! What’s the difference between a ‘zzz’ and a ‘sss’ sound?

Think about it –– how would you tell someone to make a ‘zzz’ sound into a ‘sss’ sound? If you’re like most people, you can’t quickly describe exactly what’s happening in your mouth when you make those sounds. Most people would have to actually say ‘zzz’ and ‘sss’ out loud to figure it out. That’s because a lot of our knowledge about our own speech sounds is automatic — that is, not consciously available to us. If you did pronounce it out loud, you’d observe that the difference between making a ‘zzz’ and a ‘sss’ sound has to do with your vocal cords. To make a ‘zzz’ sound, you need to vibrate your vocal cords — turn them “on.” To make a ‘sss’ sound – you have to turn them off. There’s actually a name for the actions of your vocal folds; it’s called phonation. It’s a pretty jargony term that most people wouldn’t know. But you know who would know it? Phoneticians. Phoneticians are the people who study, well…phonetics. Which begs the question…

What is phonetics?

Phonetics is the scientific study of speech sounds in language. And when it comes to learning about the speech sounds that exist across the roughly 7,000 languages around the world, there’s so much to explore. But in this article, we’re sticking to the basics. That means starting with the speech stream. In the simplest of terms, a speech stream is composed of the sound waves that hit your ears as a result of someone moving their articulators (i.e. lips, tongue, teeth). Fun fact: in English, your articulators rely on combinations of just around 25 basic gestures to form almost all of the speech you ever produce (Ladefoged & Johnson, 2006; p. 2). And a quick shout-out here to the tongue: did you know that it’s among the fastest and most precise of any muscle in your body? Pretty impressive! Now, if you were a phonetician, what would be the main tool in your phonetician’s starter kit? It’s the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA is the global notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages. In layman’s terms, this means the IPA is a set of symbols (an alphabet, if you will) that can adequately represent all the possible sounds that exist across human languages. It’s the transcription you see in dictionaries, like [fə.nɛ.tɪks], which is the IPA transcription of the word ‘phonetics.’ If you want to know more about what the IPA is and how to use it (which can be really helpful for mastering pronunciation if you’re learning a language!), stay tuned for our upcoming article, where we break down everything you need to know about the IPA.

To be sure, there is much more to our speech sounds than meets the eye – or should we say, ear? Sure – our speech sounds are fun to learn about  — but what not everyone knows about phonetics is that, as a field of study, it has a lot of important real-world applications:

  1. Forensic evidence. This one might come as a surprise, but phonetic transcriptions and acoustic analyses of verbal exchanges or voice recordings are often used as evidence in police work and on trial.
  2. Emerging technology. Acoustic phonetic measurements are the basis for all the speech recognition software you interact with daily on your electronic devices.
  3. Understanding human cognition. Thinking more broadly, the field of phonetics aims to advance our scientific understanding of what’s possible in human speech across global languages. For example, why is it that most babies’ first sounds are something like ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ – and not some other sounds? Why is it that ‘k’ sounds hard and pointy to us while ‘oo’ tends to sound round and soft? Some speech sound questions like these have answers, while others remain a mystery. But the point is —  if we think of the speech stream as a window into human cognition, then phonetics is one of our paths towards better understanding what it means to be human.
  4. Language learning. Language teachers and speech therapists alike use phonetic information to teach target speech sounds to their students and patients. If you’re learning a language and you’d like some fun and easy tips on how to master your pronunciation – then check out this article we wrote for you!

To recap:

  • Most of our knowledge about how to produce speech sounds lies below our conscious awareness. 
  • Luckily, there is a whole field of study dedicated to understanding our speech sounds and describing how we make them. It’s called phonetics.
  • Beyond being a window into human cognition, phonetics has real-life implications in areas such as language learning, forensic analysis, and speech recognition technologies. 

Well – you can now go out into the world and impress your friends by explaining what phonetics is and how it applies to the way we use language every day!

Meet The Author:
Author - Emily Rae Sabo
Emily Rae Sabo
Linguist at Mango Languages
Emily Sabo (Ph.D., University of Michigan): A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics Ph.D. in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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