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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI6: Phonetics

This paper is available for the academic year 2024-25.

The overall aim of this course is to provide an understanding of the way languages use sound. The course not only covers topics in the description and modelling of speech, its production and perception, and the immense variety among the sound systems of languages, but it also includes the acquisition of ‘hands on’ skills of analysis both by ear and by computer.

Specific objectives of the paper are the development of familiarity with, understanding of, and (where relevant) practical competence in most of the topics listed in the next section.


Representing speech

Speaking is a complex, multidimensional event. To represent speech, phonetics crucially uses abstractions of different kinds (phonological analyses, 'narrow' phonetic transcriptions, parametric representations, acoustic displays, etc.).

The production and acoustics of speech

Vocal anatomy and function, and how sound energy is produced and shaped in the vocal tract, underlie our understanding of linguistic sound patterns.

Sounds of the world's languages

The linguistic side of phonetics is centrally concerned with how sound (including vowels and consonants, and in some languages pitch) are used to distinguish words, and with the regularities which underlie apparently diverse sound systems.

Non-lexical phonetics

There are strands in speech (intonation, voice quality, rhythm, etc.) which a speaker can exploit to communicate information over and above the words of the utterance.

Variation in speech

No two utterances are identical, and phonetics constantly confronts variation (dialectal, historical, stylistic, social, individual, etc); accounting for variation is a major task in phonetics.

Acquisition, perception, and change

These areas form a nexus, since phonetic change depends in part on phonological acquisition by children and multilingual adults, and to understand both acquisition and change we need to understand speech perception.

Applications of phonetics

Phonetics has always been a discipline with practical relevance; applications include pronunciation teaching, devising writing systems, and forensic identification.

Practical skills

The 'tools of the trade' - traditional auditory-impressionistic and production skills, and the use of speech analysis software for visualising and quantifying speech acoustics - are an essential part of being a phonetician.

Preparatory reading: 

Ladefoged, P. [& Johnson, K.] ([2010]/2005/2001 [6th]/5th/4th/ edition) A Course in Phonetics. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Clark, J. & Yallop, C. [& Fletcher, J.] ([2006]/1995/1990) (3rd/2nd/1st ed.) Phonetics and Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Johnson, K. (2012/2003/1997) Acoustic and auditory phonetics. Oxford: Blackwell

Laver, J. (1994) Principles of Phonetics. Cambridge: CUP.

International Phonetic Association (1999) The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP. (esp. Part I)

Teaching and learning: 

There is a one-hour lecture and a one-hour practical slot each week over the 16 weeks of Michaelmas and Lent terms. The practicals take place in the Phonetics Laboratory.

Supervisions are normally divided as follows: three in Michaelmas, four in Lent, and one in Easter Term.

The paper's Moodle site can be found here. You can self-enrol in a 'student' or 'observer' role.


  • The assessment for the phonetics paper consists of the following components:
  1. Practical component (40%)

    25%: Unknown language transcription and commentary using Praat, Easter Term week 1

    (ii) 15%: IPA oral examination, Easter Term week 2

    (in-person, Phonetics Lab, approx. 10 minutes per student)

    2. Written examination (60%), 2 hours in-person during main exam period (scheduled centrally)

    30%: 1 essay – Students to choose from 3 titles

    30%: Short answer questions testing factual, theoretical and interpretative knowledge.


Course Contacts: 
Dr Kirsty McDougall