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What is the difference between phonetic and phonemic transcription?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Put simply, something phonemic is always phonetic, but something phonetic is not always phonemic. The two terms as you list them (phonetic and phonemic) are listed from general to specific. Phonetics, as has been previously stated, is the study of the organization of sounds no matter what language is in question. Phonetic transcription is the transcription of these sounds. Therefore, phonetics corresponds to specific, physical characteristics (and not necessarily how they are patterned within words). Because phonemes are a specific kind of phonetic sound, the transcription of these sounds will be more about the specific patters that these sounds make, such as the differing sounds that change a word’s meaning in a particular language. For example, people who speak English as their native language will understand the differing phonemes at the end of “ton” and “tong” and how they change the meaning of the word. You will, as another example, find phonemic transcription (represented in between two backslashes) in almost every dictionary right next to the word being defined. Why? To help with pronunciation within that specific language.

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Tim Mbiti eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Phonetics is the study of the systematic organization of sound in different languages and further specifies phonetic features. Phonetic transcription can be categorized into broad and narrow transcription whereby phonemic transcription forms one type of the broad transcription in phonetics. Thus Phonemes belong to a particular branch of phonetics.

Phonemic transcription is concerned with the distribution of sound therefore when a sound alters the meaning of the word it becomes important to allocate separate symbols to make them distinguishable. For instance the word “bet” and “bed” have the two sounds “t” and “d” which alter the meaning of the word thus making them different.

Phonetic transcription on the other hand is concerned with the physical characteristics of sounds and not their patterns. Thus phonetic transcription focuses on acoustic transmission of sound, production and its perception in speech.

samcestmoi | Student

Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies the physical, acoustic mechanisms involved in producing speech, as well as how best to represent and classify the sounds that make up a language.  Both phonetic and phonemic transcription are essential elements of the phonetic classifications of a language. 

Phonetic transcription and phonemic transcription both involve the use of standardized symbols (the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA) to represent individual sounds in a language– the difference lies in the degree of specification.  In phonemic transcription, all the different allophones of a given phoneme are given the same symbol.  For example, in English, the sound (phoneme) represented by the letter <t> has several different articulations associated with it (allophones) – an aspirated <t>, like in the beginning of the word <take>; an unaspirated <t>, like in the word <stand>, and a flap <t>, as in the American pronunciation of the word <better>.  Because these different sounds are interchangeable (the use of one rather than another does not change the meaning of the word), they are all given the same phonemic symbol -- /t/.  Sounds that are not interchangeable (i.e. those that result in different words), such as the <t> and <d> in <bet> and <bed>, are of course represented by different symbols.

In phonetic transcription, all these different allophones are given their own individual symbols.  So for the <t>s outlined above, we would have [th], [t], and [ɾ], respectively.  Therefore phonetic transcription uses different symbols for every sound in a language, regardless of whether or not that sound is a phoneme or an allophone.  Phonetic transcription facilitates the understanding of different sounds across an international spectrum of languages; phonemic transcription facilitates the same within the smaller context of a single language, and therefore there is less differentiation between symbols and sounds.

If you’ll notice, phonetic transcriptions are indicated with [brackets], while phonemic transcriptions are indicated with /slashes/. 

amylarson16 | Student

Phonemic transcriptions are generally found in dictionaries next to any word in question, and are the more commonly used method of comprehending a word’s pronunciation.

Phonetic transcription delves more deeply into the forming of a word’s sounds, taking the production of a “t” sound, for example, down to the technical creating of such, and offering symbols that provide step-by-step, sound-by-sound speech coaching.

criophore-753 | Student

Phonetics is defined as the study and classification of the physiological and acoustic properties involved in the production of spoken language.  The scope of phonetics is universal; it encompasses every type of sound that might be employed in speech, regardless of the specific language.  

Phonemics, on the other hand, is the study of the distribution of the sound patterns characteristic of a specific language.  Every language has such patterns,  typical features of sound readily distinguishable by native speakers.  For example, a native speaker of English is able to understand how the sound of the specific phonemes which end the words 'son' and 'song' change their meaning.

Over the past century, the International Phonetic Association has developed a system to represent the sounds of spoken language, called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  These representations, called transcriptions, are a familiar feature of dictionary pronunciation keys.  

Phonetic transcriptions, which are surrounded by square brackets [ ], include aspects of the pronunciation of a word which are significant, but not necessarily related to their use in a specific language.  Phonemic transcriptions, which are surrounded by forward slashes / /, take note of only those patterns of pronunciation in a specific language.

In summary, phonetic transcription is a symbolic  expression for the acoustic properties of a word, not related to a specific language, and phonemic transcription is a symbolic expression for the pronunciation of a word in a specific language.