The Need for a Phonetic Alphabet

The Need for a Phonetic Alphabet

What is a phonetic alphabet? Why do we need one? Why can't we just use regular spelling?

You probably grew up learning to read English by learning phonics. That is, you learned to sound out words based on their spelling.  
Alphabet spelling (orthography) does represent pronunciation somewhat:
But notice that each of the underlined sounds here are all pronounced as the long e even though they are spelled in many different ways:
Did he believe that Caesar could see the people seize the seas? 
The silly amoeba stole the key to the machine.
There are many sounds employed in human languages, but no one writing system has symbols that represent all of these sounds. 
1. Different letters may represent a single sound.
2. A single letter may represent different sounds.
cakemad fatherlaw village many 
 [ei[@ [a:][o][^[e]
3. Some letters are silent.
4. Single letters sometimes correspond to two speech sounds.
fax cute
5. Some sounds are pronounced but not spelled
6. Some sounds do not appear to be related at all to spelling
rough  thorough through 

7. People don't produce sounds identically (because of their accents, for example)


Practice: How Many Speech Sounds?

Decide how many speech sounds are in each word below. Then check your answers.This practice will prepare you to complete Mod 3 Activity 1 successfully, so do not skip this step. Example: man = 3 sounds (m - a- n)
Practice 1
  1. go
  2. this
  3. caught
  4. beat
  5. cube
  6. learn
  7. the
  8. foot
  9. match
  10. who
Check your answers for practice 1
Practice 2
  1. roads
  2. beauty
  3. through
  4. mission
  5. about
  6. design
  7. lamb
  8. moose
  9. ladder
  10. usual
Check your answers for practice 2
Practice 3
  1. brown
  2. guard
  3. physics
  4. doily
  5. boat
  6. church
  7. doors
  8. uniform
  9. reign
  10. father
Check your answers for practice 3
(return to 3.4.1 Problems for Week 6)
Because spelling doesn't really represent speech sounds, 

linguists use a phonetic alphabet which provides a unique 

symbol to represent each speech sound. In this class, we use 

the ACSII Phonetic Alphabet, an easy to use alternative to the 

International Phonetic Alphabet.
A phonetic alphabetic allows use to describe sounds
  • in any language
  • they way people say them
  • without worrying about "proper" spelling
  • placed in [brackets] to distinguish from orthography.
Most ASCII symbols will be familiar to you since letters of the Roman alphabet are used to represent sounds. 
In the following lessons we will use the ASCII symbols for each of the speech sounds we discuss.

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