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In Part 2 of the first lesson we finished looking at the 6 main areas of linguistics proper. We saw how linguistics itself could be broken down into 3 branches – soundstructure, and meaning. We also saw how each branch covers 2 of the 6 main areas of linguistics. In this lesson we will look at the first branch, and specifically at the first area: phonetics.

Before I get into it, keep in mind that there are other areas in linguistics such as the various branches of applied linguistics, as well as historical linguistics and comparative linguistics. The last two fields aren’t the same as applied linguistics in that they don’t involve a conjoining of linguistics with another field of science. However they aren’t generally taught in an introductory linguistics course since they are a form of applied linguistics. They require knowledge of the 6 main areas.

So what is phonetics? Phonetics is defined by Dictionary.com as:

the science or study of speech sounds and their production, transmission, and reception, and their analysis, classification, and transcription.

So phonetics is the study of speech sounds. What is a speech sound? It is any sound that is used in speech. This would differ from sounds like grunts and gasps, which aren’t used in normal speech.

Phoneticians – those who study phonetics – look at all the possible speech sounds that humans can make. More specifically they investigate things like how speech sounds are produced, the different types of speech sounds, how these sounds are perceived or received, and the physics of speech. These are categorized under the following: Articulatory PhoneticsAuditory Phonetics, and Acoustic Phonetics. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Articulatory Phonetics – This branch of phonetics is concerned with the production of speech. This entails how speech sounds are produced, which further includes speech anatomy, and the types of sounds humans can make. Speech anatomy means the parts of our anatomy that create speech.

Auditory Phonetics – This branch deals with how speech is received and perceived. How speech is received includes both the anatomy and physiology of the ear and the brain, which together are called the hearing system.

Acoustic Phonetics – This branch studies the physical properties of what is called the speech signal. The speech signal is the actual soundwave made when someone utters a speech sound. So, acoustic phonetics studies the physical properties of these soundwaves, such as frequency.

Next week we’ll look at articulatory phonetics in more detail as this branch lays the groundwork for phonology.



  1. “MOOC: Linguistics 101 – Fundamentals”, The Virtual Linguistics Campus: http://linguistics.online.uni-marburg.de/
  2. “Phonetics”, Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/phonetics