Issues in Transcription: Phonetics and
Phonemics in Alphabets and Writing Systems
Though an (alphabetic/syllabic) written language gives a good idea of
the phonology of a language as implicit part of the system, it does
not usually accurately nor completely reflect the phonetic system of
sounds itself nor the mechanical representation of the sounds uttered
by speakers of the language. Linguists have created tools for
accurately transcribing the physical utterances since the realization
of this fact, from a rudimentary system invented by Bell in the 1860s
to the International Phonetic Alphabet that is in common use today.
Also included in this paper are psychological reasons for this and
examples of written systems invented by various cultures to represent
their languages in writing.
Getting a good
paradigm for the spoken phonemes in the vocabulary of and in the
regular systems of a language is important. In Sapir's case, it was
a matter of understanding and describing a language completely in the
annals of history before it disappeared. The understanding of a
phonology of a language is necessary to non-native speakers of the
language, the phonemic paradigms may be critically different in
either tongue and result in the second-language learner to pronounce
things in an unintelligible 'accent' in the other language. The
diachronic study of sounds in a language has been a major focus since
the beginnings of linguistics and a historical device in determining
Sapir observes in
The Psychological Reality of Phonemes a certain phenomenon in
his Southern Paiute interpreter: what at first he interprets as an
error on the part of the transcription actually reflects a dichotomy
between a psychological reality and a physical one; phonetics v.
phonemics. While Sapir transcribed the phrase “at the water”
his native speaker syllabified it as /pa∙/-/pa'/
(51). At the time, comments Sapir, “my point of view at
that time stressed phonetic accuracy rather than phonemic adequacy”
and this explains why he was so stricken with the difference between
what was said and what was heard. The style of transcription in
which the Paiute speaker wrote is well documented and has a
developmental reason for its occurrence (de Gelder 20). Speech is
the primary means of language acquisition, and an ear trained to the
certain phonemic system of a language also has a mind tuned to it
(84-5). The act of writing is secondary to speech (28) and therefore
acts as a mirror to this internal phonemic mapping, a /p/→/β/
transformation in a multisyllabic environment will still be written
as the base phoneme that was mapped to the character 'p'; to write
the mechanical sounds the ear has to be trained to be
language-neutral, slightly ignorant of the context of the sounds.
Many languages have
adapted a phonemic system of spelling for written language, as
opposed to an ideographic, more abstract system. Most widely spoken
languages with a literary history use words as a partial description
of the sound, with the notable exceptions of the Chinese languages
and Japanese (which uses a mixed phonemic/ideographic system,
borrowing characters from Chinese). The granularity of each written
unit varies from system to system, from syllabaries (Japanese has
relatively few syllabic possibilities and can essentially encompass
them all in 46 phonetic characters, two voicing markers (ex: ほ/ho/
and three variant characters for composing glides (ex: き/ki/
to component parts, such as the Latin alphabet which allows for
complex strings of consonants and vowels or the more fixed Bopomofo,
a (recent) phonetic system for writing Chinese words. And in-between
systems exist as well, Tamil exists as a set of consonant graphs
which change shape/gain markings to indicate the subsequent vowel
sound. The Korean Hangul system is composed by arranging smaller
consonant and vowel symbols into a single glyph representing a
The Roman alphabet
evolved essentially as a descriptive phonetic system from the Greek;
but even in Latin it reflects a slight dichotomy between what is said
and what is heard. Only seven vowels (five monophthongs and two
diphthongs written as digraph ligatures) are in the Roman alphabet,
with no visual indicators for short or long vowels, nor for syllabic
stress. For example, the word written as 'puella' could have two
meanings depending on the pronunciation of the inflection: with a
short /ə/, puella is the
singular nominative form of the noun. However, with a long /ɑ/,
puellā becomes the dative form of the noun.
Languages that uses
the Roman alphabet have adapted it to make up for the shortcomings
when used in its own phonetic system. Such changes include accents,
diacritic and nasalization marks and umlauts, as well as the creation
of new glyphs (j as a variant form of i, G as a variant of C, u and v
splitting into two distinctive graphs, w for the English semivowel,
the Catalan ŀl, etc), or using provided characters for
new purposes (Spanish ll to represent /ʎ/).
Ultimately, though, the system has not been completely
phonetically descriptive in any language (Castillan Spanish uses s
for /s/ and /θ/,
which are typological differences of an identical phoneme; variant
forms of each other; compare spelled American English butter
instead of a more phonetically faithful /bʊtʼeɹ/,
pronunciation of (bad, bade) to (/bæd/,
Note that the
ideographic Chinese languages have a slight tendency to make
homophones of a certain high frequency of use, visually similar
characters (de Gelder 148), and usually share radicals (ex: 芳
and 方, both pronounced as
fong in Mandarin, mean
“aromatic” and “square,” respectively. 149)
that suggests a tendency to slight
clues as to a word's pronunciation, sort of a hidden, indirect
As all these
adaptations and tendency from a purely phonetic system show that the
Roman alphabet in its original form is inappropriate for describing
mechanical sounds and extending beyond its original phonetic sounds,
but keep in mind that the system is open and extensible.
Alexander Melville Bell published a proposed system for descriptive
phonetics in his Visible Speech. It was an
interesting system, if nothing else, using symbols to represent the
physical shape and articulatory details of a sound (as a site note,
the system's constructs and visual style are coincidentally quite
similar to Tamil).
Bell, at the time,
tried to make his system as universal as possible. There are several
chapters trying to reconcile the use of clicks in African languages
and the tonal qualities of Chinese syllables with additional
diacritic marks (Bell 70-2). In many aspects this system is very
complete and addresses many of the phonetic issues the IPA also does.
However, the points of articulation are fixed in the visual speech.
The languages to be documented in the coming decades do not fit in
the glyphs in many situations. Each glyph was attributive, a
combination of visual cues (Bell 50) for the articulation of a sound
(voicing, aspiration, tongue position, etc). The system itself
requires a fair amount of training to begin reading functionally as
well, compare IPA /vɪʒjʊəl/
to Visual Speech /31M1BWE/ for the word visual.
This effort, which is an impressive piece of work for a century and
a half old piece of descriptive linguistics, still falls short and
has never been in common usage.
The International Phonetic Alphabet is developed by the International Phonetic Association, an organization that has been around since 1886. It is
based on the Roman alphabet, making it more familiar to most
linguists (IPA 20). The introduction of a unique symbol for each
possible manufactured sound prevents the IPA from falling into the
same trap Visual Speech did: the attributes are not fixed in the
glyph, so to extend the IPA for an as-of-yet unknown phoneme all that
needs be done is have a new arbitrary glyph added to the alphabet.
The modifying markers and diacritics in IPA are optional, allowing
for a 'narrowed' transcription ( English /haʊ
ar juː/ does not need the same
diacritics as Cantonese /jɐu|̷
jɐt˥ tsʰi˧/ (IPA
60)). Edward Sapir uses a version of the
IPA for transcribing Paiute in Reality,
as well as his other Native American dictionaries.
have no problem with phonetics, understanding each phoneme as its
true form regardless of the relationships between them in a language.
Computers as a whole tend to have a different set of issues in
transcription (Henisz 25). The pitch of the speaker's voice is a
larger obstacle to its transcribing accurate phonemes than the
system of speech or its 'understanding' of the language. There exist
problems with many applications and their approach to parsing audio,
the acoustic environment of a speaker must be much less noisy for
them to be recognized than a human listener needs.
Rudimentary speech-to-text software exists in commercial software
today, and is functional in limited environments according to
acoustic noise and the speaker's voice and speech patterns.
The need to
understand a sound system in a language before moving on to
morphology, syntax and other larger issues has resulted in the
invention of systems for representing the physical sounds represented
and more than the existent writing systems provided. Interestingly
enough, the prevalent system is merely an extension of an existing
one which has been extended in many ways since its inception; the
Bell, Alexander Melville. Visible Speech: The Science of
Universal Alphabetics. N. Trübner Co.: New York. 1867.
De Gelder, Beatrice, and José Morais, editors. Speech and Reading: A Comparative Approach.
Henisz-Dosert, Bożena, R. Ross Macdonald and Michael Zarechnak.
Machine Translation. Mouton: New York. 1979.
Handbook of the International Phonetic Association.
Cambridge Press: Cambridge, UK. 1999.
Ladefoged, Peter. A Course in Phonetics. Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich: San Diego, CA. 1982.
Pike, Kenneth L. Phonemics: A Technique for Reducing Languages to
Writing. Ann Arbor, MI: U. of Michigan Press. 1954.
Sapir, Edward. “La
Réalité Psycholique Des Phonèmes,” Journal
de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique.