According to my rudimentary understanding of electronics, the telephone transforms sounds to an electric medium transmitted to a receiver over wires. You don't really need phonetics to make that work, but I'm those days before spectrograms, I guess the invention of the phone may have kickstarted phonetic theories and acoustic analysis. Does anyone have any insight into that?

In this article, the connection between the invention of the telephone and telegraphy in general is mentioned (see excerpt) but never made explicit.


  • Indeed, this question contains a nice hypothesis that may (or may not) be true, but the way how it is asked looks a bit subjective. Have you done so far any prior research of your own? If so, would you please update the question with any intermediate results? In my opinion, this would produce more interest of those who can elaborate. – bytebuster Mar 12 '15 at 8:28
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    adjusted accordingly! – Teusz Mar 12 '15 at 18:54
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    The acoustic theory of speech production as worked out by Gunnar Fant depends on a correspondence between the vocal tract and elementary electrical circuits. If there is an interesting answer to your question, I'd look at the circuitry of telephones and what provisions there are to make telephonic speech intelligible, to see what that might have to do with Fant's theory. (Personally, I know nothing about how telephones work.) – Greg Lee Mar 13 '15 at 17:26
  • I hope you don't mind if I re-ask the question with this in mind... – Teusz Mar 13 '15 at 17:34

I think that the telephone did not directly influence phonetics, but there was probably an indirect influence via the invention of the electrical microphone (without which, no phone) and the development of an understanding of how to convert pressure waves to electricity by varying resistance on an electrical circuit. In my opinion, the most important invention of that time for phonetics was the phonograph since it allowed speech to be captured.


Phonetics refers to the linguistic study of sound at the physical level. There are many allied fields such as anatomy, physics, electronics and psychology that phoneticians call on, where telephones and the like were significant. Focusing just on phonetics and not broader acoustics and the like, the main technique of phonetics up to the invention of the spectrogram was auditory comparison a.k.a. ear-training, followed by some form of palatography. There were occasional uses of the kymograph to show something about airflow, e.g. in Armstrong's Kikuyu book. Independent of what linguists were doing, engineers developed theories of and tools for sound, which naturally could be used by linguists if they were so inclined, some number of years (many) later.

As I said, the relevance of the electrical microphone was its contribution to transduction from pressure waves to something more easily quantifiable and also manipulable via circuitry and then more abstractly by equations. Working backwards from what phonetics has developed into, digital signal processing is sort of the technological "big bang", and DSP is possible only if there is an electrical-theoretic way to turn pressure waves into current variations (we're out of the domain of phonetics now), and that requires transduction to current (microphone) and quantization circuitry. But you also need a computer to do anything useful with the digitized output. Apart from a very few laboratories such as Haskins and possibly UCLA, phoneticians still had to deal with speech sound at the analog level (hence burnt-paper spectrography) into the 80's.

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  • How do you think the concept of phonetics changed with the advent of the microphone? There was a lot of work done using the phonograph - but the microphone must've had a huge impact not only methodologically but also for theoretical implications – Teusz Mar 13 '15 at 6:38
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    One thing that the standardization (not so much the invention) of telephony did, phonetically, was set the frequency bandwidth available on a telephone line to only the frequencies used in English speech, as measured by Bell Labs in the 1930s or so. That's why music sounds so awful on a phone (not a modern phone, natch; they're not connected), and why other languages -- especially tone languages -- are so hard to understand. – john lawler in exile Mar 13 '15 at 13:59
  • Fascinating! How was the frequency of a language calculated in those days? – Teusz Mar 13 '15 at 16:35

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