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The Phonetic System of a Language


1. Aspects of Sound Phenomena.

2. Methods applied in Phonetics.

3. Phonetics as a Science.

4. Branches of Phonetics.

The phonetic system of a language contains two systems (levels) segmental & suprasegmental (prosodic). Segmental units are sounds, vowels & consonants which form the vocalic & consonantal subsystems. Prosodic units are syllables, accentual (rhythmical) units, and intonation groups, utterances, which form the subsystems of pitch, stress, rhythm, tempo, and pauses.

Segmental & prosodic units serve to form and differentiate units of other subsystems of language, the lexical and grammatical units. The modifications of words and their combination into utterances (sentences) are first of all sound phenomena. The grammatical form of a verb or a noun can be changed only by changing the sounds which compose them. By changing the prosodic structure (int-n) of an utterance one changes the meaning of the utterance. For example «Well done?» pr-ed w/ the rising tone, is a question, expressing the speaker's uncertainty and desire to get further information. «Well done!", pr-ed w/ the falling tone, wide pitch range and greater loudness, is an exclamation, expressing the speaker's evaluation.

To underline the importance of the sound medium of language H. Gleason notes that to speak any language a person must know nearly all the 100% of its phonetics, while only 50-90% of its grammar and 1% of the vocabulary may be sufficient.

Sound phenomena have different aspects: the articulatory aspect, the acoustic, the auditory and the linguistic aspect.

The articulatory (sound production) aspect -Speech sounds are products of human organs of speech. They result from the activities of the diaphragm, the lungs, the bronchi, and the trachea, the larynx w/ the vocal cords in it, the pharynx, the mouth cavity w/ the speech organs in it and the nasal cavity.

Sound production is impossible without, respiration which consists of 2 alternating phrases - inspiration and expiration. Speech sounds are based chiefly on expiration, though in some African languages there are sounds produced by inspiration.

Expiration, during which speech sounds are produced, is called phonic expiration as distinct from quiet breathing. In phonic expiration the air comes from the lungs not freely but in spurts, bec during speech the air passage is periodically blocked by the speech organs. Therefore in speech, expiration lasts much longer than inspiration, whereas in quite breathing inspiration and expiration each takes about the same period of time.

The lungs supply the necessary air-pressure and regulate its force, thus producing variations in the intensity of speech sounds.

Sound production actually takes place in the larynx, the pharynx and the oral and nasal cavities. The air-stream coming from the lungs undergoes important modifications in them.

One part of sound production is phonation, or voice-production.

When the vocal cords, situated in the larynx are tensed and brought loosely together, the air -pressure below the vocal cords becomes very high and the air comes from the lungs in regular puffs making the vocal cords vibrate. Their vibrations are complex, though mainly regular or periodic.

The regular vibrations of the vocal cords are transmitted to the air-stream and the acoustic effect perceived by the human ear is that of a vocal tone. This is what we call voice.

The other part of sound-production is articulation which comprises all the movements and positions of the speech organs necessary to pronounce a speech sound. The movements of speech organs modify the shape, size and volume of the supralaryngeal cavities (the pharynx, the mouth and nasal cavity) thus modifying the voice which comes from the lungs. As a result, a vowel sound of a certain quality is produced.

When in the supralaryngeal cavities there is an obstruction to the air-stream, a noise is produced. The character of the noise (friction or plosion), depends on the type of obstruction (a constriction or a complete closure) and determines the particular quality of a cons-t. When an obstruction is created and the vocal cords vibrate, a voiced consonant is produced. When the vocal cords do not vibrate, the result is the voiceless consonant

Thus there are two main sources of vibration in the production of speech sounds- the vocal cords and various kinds of obstruction.

The acoustic aspect -Like any other sound of nature speech sounds exist in the form of sound waves and have the same physical properties-frequency, intensity, duration and spectrum.

A sound wave is created by a vibration which may be periodic or non-periodic, simple or complex.

The vocal cords vibrate in such a way that they produce various kinds of waves simultaneously. The basic vibrations of the vocal cords over their whole length produce the fundamental tone of voice. The simultaneous vibrations of each part of the vocal cords produce partial tones (overtones or harmonies).

The number of vibrations per second is called frequency. Frequency is measured in hertz or cycles per second. Frequency of the basic vibrations of the vocal cords is the fundamental frequency. The fundamental frequency determines the pitch of the voice and forms an acoustic basis of speech melody.

The superposition of the fundamental and partial vibrations results in a complex tone.

The complex tone is modified in the oral and nasal resonators. Due to the particular changes in their shape, size and volume of the oral and nasal cavities function as acoustic filter: they intensify certain frequencies contained in the complex tone and weaken the others. Thus the specific qualities of vowel sounds are achieved.

The complex range of intensified frequencies which form the quality of a sound is called the acoustic spectrum of the sound. The intensified frequencies in the spectrum which characterize the quality of a sound and distinguish it from other sounds of different quality are called formants. Intensity of speech sounds depends on the amplitude of vibration. Changes in intensity are associated w/stress. It is measured in decibels (d.B.)

Any sound has certain duration. The duration of sounds is measured in milliseconds (ms.).

The auditory (sound perception) aspect -Speech sounds may also be analyzed from the point of view of perception. The perception of speech sounds involves the activity of our hearing mechanism, which can be viewed in 2 ways.

On the one hand, it is a physiological mechanism which reacts to acoustic stimuli: the human ear transforms mechanical vibrations of the air into nervous stimuli and transmits them to the brain. The listener hears the acoustic features of fundamental frequency, formant frequency, intensity and duration in terms of 4 perceptible categories of pitch, quality, loudness and length.

On the other hand, it is also a psychological mechanism which selects from the great amount of acoustic information only that which is linguistically significant.

The linguistic aspect - Segmental sounds and prosodic features are linguistic phenomena. Representing language units in actual speech, they perform certain linguistic functions. They constitute the meaningful units-morphemes, words, word-forms, utterances. All the words of a language consist of speech sounds which are grouped and arranged in the way specific for the language and which are unified by stress. All the utterances consist of words, and consequently, of sounds; they are characterized by certain pitch-and-stress patterns, temporal features, rhythm.

Most of the meaningful distinctions of the language are based on distinctions in sound.

Sounds and prosodic features serve to differentiate the units they form since communication by means of language is possible only bec. sound phenomena can be opposed to one another for purposes of differentiating words, word-forms and utterances.

Simultaneously, the sound phenomena enable the listener to identify them as concrete words, word-forms or utterances.

Thus, segmental sounds and prosodic features of speech perform constitutive, distinctive and recognitive functions. The linguistic aspect of speech sounds is also called the functional or social aspect, bec. of the role which sound matter plays in the functioning of language as a social phenomenon.

Phonetics as a Science -The study of the sound phenomena of language, in all their aspects and varieties, constitutes the subject of the phonetic science. Phonetics as a branch of linguistics studies sounds in the broad sense, comprising segmental sounds and prosodic phenomena (pitch, stress, tempo, rhythm, pauses). Phonetics occupies itself w/ the study of the ways in which the sounds are organized into a system of units and the variation of the units in all types and styles of spoken language. It also studies the acoustic properties of sounds, the physiological basis of sound production and the sound phenomena that reveal the individual peculiarities of the speaker.

Phonetics as a science is a branch of linguistics. Being a science in its own right, it is at the same time closely connected w/ other linguistic sciences-grammar, lexicology, stylistics and history of the language, since the phonetic system of a language, its vocabulary and grammar constitutes one indivisible whole. It is also closely connected with physiology, biology, physics, pedagogy psychology, mathematics, cybernetics.


Branches of phonetics

Phonetics is subdivided into four main branches. Articulatory phonetics is concerned with the study of sounds as the result of the activities of speech organs. It deals with our voice-producing mechanism and the way we produce sounds and prosodic phenomena. It studies respiration, phonation (voice-production), articulation and also the mental processes necessary for the mastery of phonetic system.

Methods employed in articulatory phonetics are experimental. They involve palatography, laryngoscopy, photography, cinematography, X-ray photography, X-ray cinematography, electromyography, and various kinds of technique to study sound-perception.

Besides these objective methods articulatory phonetics uses its oldest, subjective method - the method of direct observation.

Perceptual (auditory) phonetics occupies itself with the study of man's perception of segmental sounds, pitch variation, loudness and duration. It studies the ways in which sound perception is determined by the phonetic system of a language.

The methods used in auditory phonetics are also experimental.

They include various kinds of auditory tests. Since sound production and sound perception are physiological processes, articulatory and perceptual phonetics are generally termed physiological phonetics.

Acoustic phonetics is concerned with the acoustic aspect of speech sounds. It studies speech sounds with the help of experimental methods. Various kinds of apparatus are applied for analyzing the acoustic structure of segmental sounds and prosodic phenomena: e.g. a spectrograph, oscillograph and intonograph. Phonology or functional phonetics is a purely linguistic branch of phonetics. It deals with the functional aspect of the sound phenomena. Phonology sets out to discover those segmental and prosodic features that have differential value in a language, and it establishes the system of phonemes and prosodemes.

The basis of phonology is the phoneme theory, created in Russia by I. Baudouin de Courtney and developed by his pupils and followers. Phonology was founded in Prague by a group of linguists (N. Trubetzkoy, R. Jakobson and others).

The methods employed by phonology are linguistic. N. Trubetzkoy claims that phonology should be separated from phonetics. Phonetics and phonology are independent sciences: phonetics is a biological science and is concerned with physical and physiological characteristics of speech sounds; phonology is a linguistic science and is concerned with the social function of phonetic phenomena. This point of view is supported by the Danish Linguist L. Hjelmslev. But the vast majority of the former Soviet phoneticians do not consider it logical to separate function from form and to exclude phonetics from the linguistic sciences.

There are other branches of phonetics, such as: special, general, and historical descriptive, comparative, applied. Special phonetics is concerned with the study of the phonetic system of a concrete language. When the phonetic system is studied in its static form at a particular period (synchronically), we deal with descriptive phonetics. When the system is studied in its historical development (diachronically) we speak about historical phonetics.

General phonetics is concerned with the study of man's sound-producing possibilities and the functioning of his speech mechanism. It establishes the types of speech sounds in various languages, the way they are produced and the role they play when forming and expressing thoughts. It is based on the extensive material which is provided by the special phonetics of a number of languages and on the material of other sciences.

Theoretical phonetics of a particular language applies those theories to the language it analyzes.

Comparative phonetics is concerned w/ the comparative study of the phonetic systems of 2 or more languages, especially kindred ones.

By applied phonetics we mean all the practical applications of phonetics. Phonetics is of considerable importance for other fields of language study, which have made use of the approaches and the linguistic methods worked out by phonetics.

All the branches of phonetics are of great use and importance in teaching pronunciation of foreign languages.

Phonetics is of great practical importance in teaching of diction to actors, singers, radio - announcers and other public speakers. Phonetics is applied in logopedics i.e. in correcting speech defects and in curing pathological phenomena of speech, such as aphasia. Phonetics is widely used in telephony, broadcasting speech recognition.



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