Students of a compulsory phonetics class have often asked me what the best strategy is to get through the course. I have often always responded with the same answer: open-mindedness, and focus. Phonetics happens to be one of the most interesting subjects in linguistics, and an important base for anyone interested in moving forward in the field.

So what is special about phonetics? The answer is, everything. All the sound systems of the world are represented on the IPA phonetic chart, and even though one may not be able to pronounce all of them, it is important to realize that they are all legitimate sounds. And more, one can actually pronounce any one of them using the simple knowledge of their place and manner of articulation. Many of the sounds are not available in English – which explains the dilemma of most English-speaking and American students. The easiest way out is for them to realize from the start that they shouldn’t hope to be able to pronounce all the sounds, although it matters that they know how they are pronounced and what makes each of them unique.

[f] and [v] are different only in voicing. They are pronounced in the same place and with the same manner of articulation. It’s the same with [k]/[g], and [t]/[d], [s]/[z] etc. This makes it easy to distinguish between the fricatives at the end of “breath” and “breathe”. In text, they look alike, in sound, they sound different. A little step further into phonology, and we begin to ask what conditions exist that make it likely that a voiceless consonant becomes (or is realized as) a voiced one.

But for this phonetic beginning, let us just adjust to the fact that sounds are fascinating, and that our vocal tracts have evolved over the years to be able to make an almost infinite type of sounds. Our job in the phonetics class is to group those sounds according to stipulated categorization methods.

Picture of cake by Jenna Tucker

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