Phonetics

Branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human language

Sounds which are made by a full or partial constriction of the vocal tract are called consonants. Consonants are pronounced in the vocal tract, usually in the mouth, and the location of this constriction affects the resulting sound. Because of the close connection between the position of the tongue and the resulting sound, the place of articulation is an important concept in many subdisciplines of phonetics.

Consonants made by constrictions of the throat are pharyngeals, and those made by a constriction in the larynx are laryngeal. Laryngeals are made using the vocal folds as the larynx is too far down the throat to reach with the tongue. Pharyngeals however are close enough to the mouth that parts of the tongue can reach them.

A major distinction between speech sounds is whether they are voiced. Sounds are voiced when the vocal folds begin to vibrate in the process of phonation. Many sounds can be produced with or without phonation, though physical constraints may make phonation difficult or impossible for some articulations. When articulations are voiced, the main source of noise is the periodic vibration of the vocal folds. Articulations like voiceless plosives have no acoustic source and are noticeable by their silence, but other voiceless sounds like fricatives create their own acoustic source regardless of phonation.

Phonation is controlled by the muscles of the larynx, and languages make use of more acoustic detail than binary voicing. During phonation, the vocal folds vibrate at a certain rate. This vibration results in a periodic acoustic waveform comprising a fundamental frequency and its harmonics. The fundamental frequency of the acoustic wave can be controlled by adjusting the muscles of the larynx, and listeners perceive this fundamental frequency as pitch. Languages use pitch manipulation to convey lexical information in tonal languages, and many languages use pitch to mark prosodic or pragmatic information.

Vowels are broadly categorized by the area of the mouth in which they are produced, but because they are produced without a constriction in the vocal tract their precise description relies on measuring acoustic correlates of tongue position. The location of the tongue during vowel production changes the frequencies at which the cavity resonates, and it is these resonances—known as formants—which are measured and used to characterize vowels.

Articulatory phonetics deals with the ways in which speech sounds are made.