Phonetics – Part One

This week I have been doing some reading up on Phonetics. It was a subject that I knew very little about (in regards to the alphabet) and it got me wondering whether there is still a need for a phonetic alphabet and indeed phonetic transcription.

I wanted to share with you all my research so far, I am calling this blog Part One as there is still so much more information out there and it is quite lengthy and hard to read/absorb. But here is what I have discovered so far…

What is it?

Phonetic transcription is the visual representation of speech sounds. The most common type of phonetic transcription uses a phonetic alphabet.


Phonetic transcriptions are usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each words sound has its own symbol (not the spelling) and are written in square brackets [ ].

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

 The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of phonetic notation devised by linguists to accurately and uniquely represent each of the wide variety of sounds (phones or phonemes) used in spoken human language. The IPA became widely used before the First World War.

For example: The word home is hoʊm, and the transcription of come is kʌm. Note that in spelling, these words are similar. They both end in ome. But their phonetic transcriptions are different, because they are pronounced differently.

Phonetic transcription is usually given in brackets, like this: /hoʊm/, /kʌm/.

 Why would you use Phonetic Transcription?

  • For someone where English is not their native language or they are learning it, phonetic transcription enables him or her to extract precise and explicit information on pronunciation
  • Public service announcements and broadcasting – to ensure that broadcasters, announcers and news readers are pronouncing word correctly

Is there still a need for the IPA?

The IPA is being used less and less here are our thoughts as to some of the reasons:

  • Both teachers and students to not feel that the symbols are useful or credible any more
  • Online dictionaries and thesauruses that pronounce the word as sound so that students can listen and repeat the words
  • The rise in online language tutorials
  • Phonetic alphabet may not be useful for everyone as it is quite difficult to understand

What is the difference between phonetic and phonemic transcription?

Phonetics is the study of the systematic organisation of sound in different languages. Phonetic transcription is concerned with the physical characteristics of sounds, not their patterns. Phonemic transcription is concerned with the distribution of sound therefore when a sound alters the meaning of the word it becomes important to allocate separate symbols to make them distinguishable.


This is by no means a conclusion on the subject, there is still a lot to be understood on this subject, but I want to try and steer away from using academic terms and share with you my research in more layman terms, because I am not in any way shape or form an academic and will not try to be. I personally find some of the reading I have done difficult to understand and I want to make sure that my blog post explains phonetic and phonemic transcription in a simple and easy to understand way.

If anyone has any experience or knowledge that they would like to share on the subject then please leave a comment.


Cerri Killworth, Typist for Fingertips Typing services.