Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The study of human speech sounds is called phonetics.

Phonetic alphabets are used to represent the sounds we speak. Words can have more letters than sounds and vice versa. In English, what is written can vary greatly from what is pronounced. The number of sounds and letters in a word are not always equal.

Words that contain the same number of sounds and letters:

Words that contain more letters than sounds:

The need for a phonetic alphabet

An example of a phonetic alphabet which is widely used is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Dictionaries often uses a modified version of this phonetic alphabet in their pronunciation keys, since it easier to read than IPA. By writing in a phonetic alphabet, one can determine the pronunciation of ANY word, no matter the language.

Of course, not every language uses ALL the sounds that are possible.

There exist sounds in other languages which do not occur in English. How this affects borrowed words is that we usually 'approximate' the sounds that don't exist into the closest sound the does exist in English. Example: the final consonant sound in the German word Bach is usually pronounced with a [k] sound in English, but is actually a different (although similar) sound, represented by [x] in IPA.

Conversely, there are sounds that occur in English that do not occur in other languages. Example: French does not have the "th" sound as in thin or the (IPA [θ] and [ð], respectively) so French speakers may perceive such words as having an [s] or [z] sound.