Different ways to transcribe sound and their advantages.

Anybody studying pronunciation will come across phonetic transcriptions of words and sounds. There are three ways of representing a word:

1. Written English: represented by < > EG < port >
2. Phonemic Transcription: represented by / / EG /pɔːt/
3. Phonetic Transcription: represented by [ ] EG [pʰɔˑt]

Most students are familiar with phonemic transcriptions – they appear in most dictionaries and represent a very useful study tool as they provide a lot of information about the pronunciation of the word. In the example, we learn that in fact contains a silent < r >, and that the vowel is long, denoted by two dots /ː/.

As students reach a more advanced level, however, it is necessary to look more closely at the pronunciation of each sound. In order to pronounce the word < port > correctly, we must aspirate the /p/ sound. Aspiration is a big audible explosion of air that appears in voiceless plosive consonants in English. This is shown in the phonetic transcription with by [ʰ]. We also notice that the long vowel /ɔ:/ is reduced in length due to the following /t/ sound, we can represent this in a phonetic transcription with one dot instead of two [ˑ].

The difference is in the level of detail – a phonetic transcription contains a lot more information.

Is it useful to learn both scripts?

Most students who simply want to improve their clarity and pronunciation will benefit a lot from learning phonemic transcriptions as they learn how to pronounce each sound. It is also advisable to learn a few key areas of phonetics such as reduced vowels, aspiration, dentalisation, velarisation and unreleased consonants as they are important areas in accurate production of English.