[fuh-net-iks, foh-]
phonetics, study of the sounds of languages from three basic points of view. Phonetics studies speech sounds according to their production in the vocal organs (articulatory phonetics), their physical properties (acoustic phonetics), or their effect on the ear (auditory phonetics). All phonetics are interrelated, since human articulatory and auditory mechanisms correspond to each other and are mediated by wavelength, pitch, and the other physical properties of sound. Systems of phonetic writing are aimed at the accurate transcription of any sequence of speech sounds; the best known is the International Phonetic Alphabet. Narrow transcription specifies as many features of a sound as can be symbolized, while broad transcription specifies only as many features of a sound as are necessary to distinguish it from other sounds. Each language uses a limited number of the humanly possible sounds grouped into phonemes, and the hearer-speaker is trained from childhood to classify them into these groups, rejecting as nonsignificant all sorts of features actually phonetically present. So the English speaker does not notice that he always makes a puff of air when he pronounces the p of pin and never makes the puff with the p of spin; for him they are the same sound. Yet in some languages (as in Sanskrit) just the presence or absence of that puff in both words would indicate a phonemic difference, and two words might differ in meaning because of the puff. In English the two sounds are considered variations of a single sound, the phoneme p, and as such are allophones. In the other situation, aspirated p (p with a puff) and unaspirated p are not allophones but separate phonemes. Phonemes include all significant differences of sound, including features of voicing, place and manner of articulation, accent, and secondary features of nasalization, glottalization, labialization, and the like. Whereas phonetics refers to the study of the production, perception, and physical nature of speech sounds, phonology refers to the study of how such sounds are combined in particular languages and of how they are used to convey meaning. Systematic sound change through time is treated by comparative and historical linguistics. See grammar; language; writing.

See K. Pike, Phonemics (1947); N. Chomsky and M. Halle, The Sound Pattern of English (1968); P. Ladefoged, A Course in Linguistic Phonetics (1982); G. Pullum and W. Ladusaw, Phonetic Symbol Guide (1986); I. R. MacKay, Phonetics (2d ed. 1987).

Voice onset time
+ Aspirated
0 Tenuis
In phonetics, aspiration is the strong burst of air that accompanies either the release or, in the case of preaspiration, the closure of some obstruents. To feel or see the difference between aspirated and unaspirated sounds, one can put a hand or a lit candle in front of his or her mouth, and say tore ([tʰɔɹ]) and then store ([stɔɹ]). One should either feel a puff of air or see a flicker of the candle flame with tore that one does not get with store. In English, the t should be aspirated in tore and unaspirated in store.

The diacritic for aspiration in the International Phonetic Alphabet is a superscript "h", [ʰ] . Unaspirated consonants are not normally marked explicitly, but there is a diacritic for non-aspiration in the Extensions to the IPA, the superscript equal sign, [⁼].


Voiceless consonants are produced with the vocal cords open and voiced consonants are produced when the vocal folds are fractionally closed. Voiceless aspiration occurs when the vocal cords remain open after a consonant is released. An easy way to measure this is by noting the consonant's voice onset time, as the voicing of a following vowel cannot begin until the vocal cords close.

Usage patterns

English voiceless stop consonants are aspirated for most native speakers when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable, as in pen, ten, Ken. They are unaspirated for almost all speakers when immediately following word-initial s, as in spun, stun, skunk. After s elsewhere in a word they are normally unaspirated as well, except when the cluster is heteromorphemic and the stop belongs to an unbound morpheme; compare dis[t]end vs. dis[tʰ]aste. Word-final voiceless stops optionally aspirate.

Aspirated consonants are not always followed by vowels or other voiced sounds; indeed, in Eastern Armenian, aspiration is contrastive even at the ends of words. For example compare: bard͡z pillow, with bart͡s⁼ difficult and bart͡sʰ high.

In many languages, such as the Chinese languages, Indo-Aryan languages (from Sanskrit), Dravidian languages (i.e. under the influence of Sanskrit. Tamil, the classical Dravidian tongue does not show aspiration at all), Icelandic, Korean, Thai, and Ancient Greek, etc. and etc. are different phonemes altogether.

Alemannic German dialects have unaspirated as well as aspirated ; the latter series are usually viewed as consonant clusters. In Danish and most southern varieties of German, the "lenis" consonants transcribed for historical reasons as are distinguished from their "fortis" counterparts mainly in their lack of aspiration.

Icelandic and Faroese have pre-aspirated ; some scholars interpret these as consonant clusters as well. Preaspirated stops also occur in some Sami languages; e.g. in Skolt Sami the unvoiced stop phonemes p, t, c, k are pronounced preaspirated (ʰp, ʰt ʰc ʰk) when they occur in medial or final position.

There are degrees of aspiration. Armenian and Cantonese have aspiration that lasts about as long as English aspirated stops, as well as unaspirated stops like Spanish. Korean has lightly aspirated stops that fall between the Armenian and Cantonese unaspirated and aspirated stops, as well as strongly aspirated stops whose aspiration lasts longer than that of Armenian or Cantonese. (See voice onset time.) An old IPA symbol for light aspiration was [ ʻ ] (that is, like a rotated ejective symbol), but this is no longer commonly used. There is no specific symbol for strong aspiration, but [ʰ] can be iconically doubled for, say, Korean *[kʻ ] vs. *[kʰʰ]. Note however that Korean is nearly universally transcribed as [k] vs. [kʰ], with the details of voice onset time given numerically.

Aspiration also varies with place of articulation. Spanish /p t k/, for example, have voice onset times (VOTs) of about 5, 10, and 30 milliseconds, whereas English /p t k/ have VOTs of about 60, 70, and 80 ms. Korean has been measured at 20, 25, and 50 ms for and 90, 95, and 125 for .

Usage of [ʰ]

The word 'aspiration' and the aspiration symbol is sometimes used with voiced stops, such as [dʰ]. However, such "voiced aspiration", also known as breathy voice or murmur, is less ambiguously transcribed with dedicated diacritics, either [d̤] or [dʱ]. (Some linguists restrict the subscript diacritic [  ̤] to sonorants, such as vowels and nasal consonants, which are murmured throughout their duration, and use the superscript [ʱ] for the murmured release of obstruents.) When murmur is included under the term aspiration, "voiceless aspiration" is called just that to avoid ambiguity.


  • Taehong Cho and Peter Ladefoged, "Variations and universals in VOT". In Fieldwork Studies of Targeted Languages V: UCLA Working Papers in Phonetics vol. 95. 1997.

See also

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