What is Phonetics?

First things first, phonetics has a lot of new terminology to take on board. Check out this glossary to find new terms with clear definitions.
Phonetics is all about studying the sounds we make when we talk. There are three main branches of this discipline.

The three branches of Phonetics

Acoustic Phonetics

This is the study of the sound waves made by the human vocal organs for communication and how the sounds are transmitted. The sound travels through from the speaker's mouth through the air to the hearer's ear, through the form of vibrations in the air. Phoneticians can use equipment like Oscillographs and Spectographs in order to analyse things like the frequency and duration of the sound waves produced. Acoustic phonetics also looks at how articulatory and auditory phonetics link to the acoustic properties.

Auditory Phonetics

This is how we perceive and hear sounds and how the ear, brain and auditory nerve perceives the sounds. This branch deals with the physiological processes involved in the reception of speech.

Articulatory Phonetics

Articulatory phonetics is interested in the movement of various parts of the vocal tract during speech.The vocal tract is the passages above the larynx where air passes in the production of speech. In simpler terms which bit of the mouth moves when we make a sound.

VPM labels is a term that is used in phonetics, it means Voice Place Manner labels. These labels are given to sounds, in order to describe where the sound is produced, how and whether it is voiced or unvoiced (voiceless).

Check out this diagram to help you see where exactly the articulators are.

Voiced and Voiceless sounds

Voiced sounds are sounds vibrate the vocal chords, you can feel this in the throat. Whereas voiceless sounds don't vibrate the vocal chords. Why not give it a go! Place two fingers on the front of your throat and make the /z/ sound as in buzz, do you feel your vocal chords vibrating? Now try doing the same thing but making the /s/ sounds as in grass, what do you feel now? The /s/ sound is a voiceless sound and the /z/ sound is voiced.

Place of Articulation

Speech sounds are classified in terms of which articulators are used, in other words, which bit of the mouth is used in making the sound. Here are some basic classifications to get you started.

 Term  Explanation  Example
 Bilabial Sound made using both lips.
 /p/ as in pat
/b/ as in bat
 Labiodental  Sound made using the lower lip and upper teeth.
 /f/ as in fat
/v/ as in vase
 Alveolar  Sound made where the tongue touches the alveolar ridge.
 /d/ as in dad
/s/ as in sat
 Dental  Sound made using the teeth and tongue.
/ð/ as in the
/ θ/ as in thing
 Velar  Sound made using the back part of the tongue and the soft palate (velum).
 /k/ as in cat
/g/ as in gate
 Glottal  Sound made using the glottis.
 Glottal stops:/ʔ/

Manner of Articulation

Manner of articulation is how the tongue, lips and jaw along with other speech organs are involved when making a sound.

The manners:

Plosive (stop)
Sounds that are made with complete a complete stop of air flow in the vocal tract. Sounds like /p/, /b/, /t/ and /k/.

Sounds that are made where air escapes through the nasal cavity. Sounds like /n/ and /m/.

A sound produced by a near complete stoppage of air. Sounds like /s/, /z/ or /f/.

Sound made whe
re one articulator comes close to another without causing audible friction. Sounds like /w/ or /r/.
  • Lateral Approximant: Where air escapes through the sides of the tongue, however the tongue blocks the air from going through the middle of the mouth. Sounds like /l/.

A sound made that starts like a plosive and then releases into a fricative. Sounds like /dʒ/ and /tʃ/.

Now we know if a sound is voiced or voiceless, the place of articulation and manner of articulation we can start to make VPM labels (Voice Place Manner labels).

For each sound we need to decide, if its voiced or voiceless and where and how the sound is made. Here are a few examples:

/s/- Voiceless Alveolar Fricative

/b/- Voiced Bilabial Plosive

/m/- Voiced Bilabial Nasal

/θ/- Voiceless Dental Fricative


The IPA is a system devised to create a standardised representation of all the sounds spoken by a language. This is used in phonetic transcription. It provides a clear and consistent way to transcribe words when phoneticians transcribe dialects for example. Every single speech sound or 'phoneme' has its own symbol corresponding to it. This helps us to transcribe words, the exact way they are said. (See Where is Phonetics studied? for more information on the IPA community.)
The IPA looks very daunting at first glance so here is a bit of an easier way to help you learn the IPA symbols on a basic level.
Vowel Sounds 

æ as in cab                                  e as in pet                       ɪ as in kit

ɒ as in dog                                   ʊ as in dug                      ʌ as in putt (like a southerner saying strut)  

ɪə as in fear                                 eə as in pear                    ɔɪ as in toy

aɪ as in buy                                 əʊ as in float                    eɪ as in hey

aʊ as in cow                                uː as in room                    iː as in leek

ɜː as in third                                aː as in arm                      ɔː as in pour

ə as in about


Consonant sounds

b: as in bad        k: as in cat            d: as in dog            f as in frog            g as in gas    h as in help

l as in leap        m as in man            n as in no               p as in pat            r as in rat      s as in sat

t as in tap          v as in veil              z as in zoo            j as in yellow          w as in wash    ʒ as in leisure

dʒ as in large     tʃ as in child            ʃ as in ship            θ as in thing           ð as in the     ŋ as in flying

ʔ is a glottal stop.


Why not have a go at transcribing some words yourself? Start with easy short words (like your name, etc) and build it up!


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