Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Linguists who specialize in studying the physical properties of speech are phoneticians. The field of phonetics is traditionally divided into three sub-disciplines based on the research questions involved such as how humans plan and execute movements to produce speech (articulatory phonetics), how various movements affect the properties of the resulting sound (acoustic phonetics), or how humans convert sound waves to linguistic information (auditory phonetics). Traditionally, the minimal linguistic unit of phonetics is the phone—a speech sound in a language which differs from the phonological unit of phoneme; the phoneme is an abstract categorization of phones.
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Phonetics deals with two aspects of human speech: production—the ways humans make sounds—and perception—the way speech is understood. The communicative modality of a language describes the method by which a language produces and perceives languages. Languages with oral-aural modalities such as English produce speech orally (using the mouth) and perceive speech aurally (using the ears). Sign languages, such as Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and American Sign Language (ASL), have a manual-visual modality, producing speech manually (using the hands) and perceiving speech visually (using the eyes). ASL and some other sign languages have in addition a manual-manual dialect for use in tactile signing by deafblind speakers where signs are produced with the hands and perceived with the hands as well.
Language production consists of several interdependent processes which transform a non-linguistic message into a spoken or signed linguistic signal. After identifying a message to be linguistically encoded, a speaker must select the individual words—known as lexical items—to represent that message in a process called lexical selection. During phonological encoding, the mental representation of the words are assigned their phonological content as a sequence of phonemes to be produced. The phonemes are specified for articulatory features which denote particular goals such as closed lips or the tongue in a particular location. These phonemes are then coordinated into a sequence of muscle commands that can be sent to the muscles, and when these commands are executed properly the intended sounds are produced.
These movements disrupt and modify an airstream which results in a sound wave. The modification is done by the articulators, with different places and manners of articulation producing different acoustic results. For example, the words tack and sack both begin with alveolar sounds in English, but differ in how far the tongue is from the alveolar ridge. This difference has large effects on the air stream and thus the sound that is produced. Similarly, the direction and source of the airstream can affect the sound. The most common airstream mechanism is pulmonic—using the lungs—but the glottis and tongue can also be used to produce airstreams.
Language perception is the process by which a linguistic signal is decoded and understood by a listener. In order to perceive speech the continuous acoustic signal must be converted into discrete linguistic units such as phonemes, morphemes, and words. In order to correctly identify and categorize sounds, listeners prioritize certain aspects of the signal that can reliably distinguish between linguistic categories. While certain cues are prioritized over others, many aspects of the signal can contribute to perception. For example, though oral languages prioritize acoustic information, the McGurk effect shows that visual information is used to distinguish ambiguous information when the acoustic cues are unreliable.
Modern phonetics has three branches: