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What is phonetics?

What is phonetics?

Phonetics is the the study of the sounds used in speech. In this introductory class, we focus on articulatory phonetics -- how human beings use their vocal organs to speak: 
  • how speech sounds can be described, 
  • how they are generated in the human vocal tract.
Articulatory phonetics is for students who plan to become language teachers, speech pathologists and therapists, translators, and accent coaches. Students interested in the quality of the sounds and sound waves used to signal different pronunciations study acoustic phonetics, while students interested in the study of how we hear, perceive and decode speech sounds is auditory phonetics.
Phonetics is not concerned with the meaning of these sounds, the order in which they are placed, or any other factor outside of how they are produced and heard, and their various properties. 

What came first - speaking or writing?

Speech and writing are two different forms of communication that serve different func­tions. Neither is more superior or inferior than the other. However, there is a widely held misconception that writing is more perfect than speech. To many people, writing somehow seems more correct and more stable, whereas speech can be careless, corrupted, and susceptible to change. Some people even go so far as to identify 'language' with writing and to regard speech as a secondary form of language used imperfectly to approximate the ideals of the written language.
One of the basic assumptions of modern linguistics (as opposed to linguistics before the beginning of the twentieth century), however, is that speech is primary and writing is secondary. (Again, this shouldn't be interpreted as a superiority ranking.) The most immediate manifestation of language is speech and not writing. Writing is in most cases the representation of speech in a physical medium different from sound. Spoken language encodes thought into a physically transmittable form, while writing, in turn, encodes spoken language into a physically preservable form.
Writing is a two-stage process. All units of writing, whether letters or characters, are based on units of speech, i.e., words, sounds, or syllables. When linguists study language, they take the spoken language as their best source of data and their object of description (except in instances of languages like Latin for which there are no longer any speakers). We will be concerned with spoken language throughout this course. Though ideally we would prefer to give our examples in audio form, for technical reasons we will instead use the conventional written or orthographic form, with the understanding that it is always the spoken form that is intended.
There are several reasons for maintaining that speech is primary/basic and writing is secondary. The most important ones are the following:
  1. Writing is a later historical development than spoken language. Current archeological evidence indicates that writing was first utilized in Sumer about 6,000 years ago. (What was once Sumer is in modern-day Iraq.) The Sumerians probably devised written characters for the purpose of maintaining inventories of livestock and merchandise. As far as physical and cultural anthropologists can tell, spoken language has probably been used by humans for hundreds of thousands of years.
  1. Writing does not exist everywhere that spoken language exists. This seems hard to imag­ine in our highly literate society. But the fact is that there are still many communities in the world where a written form of language is not used. According to the latest information, among the approximately 6,900 languages in the world today, a rough estimate of 3,900 languages (or 57%) are unwritten (Ethnologue, 2004). Note that this estimate says nothing about literacy percentages or fluency, only about whether a writing system exists. Even in cultures that use a writing system there are individuals who fail to learn the written form of their language. In fact, the majority of the earth's inhabitants are illiterate, though quite capable of spoken com­munication. However, no society uses only a written language with no spoken form.
  1. Writing must be taught, whereas spoken language is acquired automatically. All children (except children with serious learning disabilities) naturally learn to speak the language of the community in which they are brought up. They acquire the basics of their native language before they enter school, and even if they never attend school they become fully competent speakers. Writing systems vary in complexity, but regardless of their level of sophistication, they must all be taught.
  1. Neurolinguistic evidence (studies of the brain "in action" during language use) demon­strates that the processing and production of written language is overlaid on the spoken language centers in the brain. Spoken language involves several distinct areas of the brain; writing uses these areas and others as well.
So why do some people have the misconception that writing is more perfect than speech? There are several reasons:
  • The product of writing is usually more aptly worded and better organized, containing fewer errors, hesitations, and incomplete sentences than are found in speech. This "perfection of writing" can be explained by the fact that writing is the result of deliberation, correction, and revision while speech is the spontaneous and simultaneous formulation of ideas; writing is therefore less subject to the constraint of time than speech is.
  • Writing is intimately associated with education and educated speech. Since the speech of the educated is more often than not set up as the "standard language", writing is associated indirectly with the varieties of language that people tend to view as "correct". (However, the association of writing with the standard variety is not a necessary one, as evidenced by the attempts of writers to transcribe faithfully the speech of their characters. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men contain examples of this.)
  • Because spoken language is physically no more than sound waves through the air, it is temporary and transient, but writing tends to last, because of its physical medium (characters on some surface) and can be preserved for a very long time. Spelling does not seem to vary from individual to individual or from place to place as easily as pronunci­ation does. Thus writing has the appearance of being more stable. Writing could also change if it were made to follow changes in speech. The fact that people at various times try to carry out spelling reforms amply illustrates this possibility. (For instance, through is sometimes spelled thru to reflect its modern pronunciation more closely.)
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