brand new here with (I hope) a simple question.

Yesterday I had my first linguistics class and the professor mentioned a difference between phonemic and phonetic transcription. He said for e.g. that a phonemic trans. uses "/", however phonetic trans. uses "[". I looked into my high school text books and found out that in a column "phonetics" there are "/". I am quite puzzled right now. Is my textbook using a wrong format of transcription?

Thank you so much for clarifying this to me!


Picture of my English textbook

  • 1
    They’re not wrong as such – ‘phonetics’ is often used as a catchall term in non-specialist contexts to mean ‘describing sound’. The IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet regardless of whether it’s used to transliterate phonemically or phonetically. In your high school book, it’s used phonemically, but it’s still fine to call it ‘phonetics’ as a general term. Everyone knows what phonetic means; only linguists know what phonemic means. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 20 '20 at 11:07
  • Yes. Note that square brackets for phonetics versus slashes for phonemics does not come up very often. In practice, in textbooks, dictionaries, and other sources that are not strictly scientific, either bracket may refer to either phonetic or phonemic transcription, since the distinction is meaningless to non-linguists. And Merriam-Webster uses their own unique non-phonemic transcription within backwards slashes, just to complicate things. So, yes, the textbook got the label wrong, but that's because Americans aren't expected to know anything about their language, so no problemo. – jlawler Oct 20 '20 at 15:51

I would say that the textbook is correct: that barring squabbles over the substance of the phonemic analysis, the book has provided a phonemic transcription, and not a phonetic one. For example, there would be "ʰ" all over the place to indicate the phonetic aspiration that exists in English. In notates "jingle" with a cluster /ŋgl/, lacking the syllabic diacritic under l which would be in a phonetic transcription. This being UK English, I don't know what other phonetic details are missing. It does make some choices about phonemicization, writing /əʊ, i:/ which could equally be /o: o; i/, but that is consistent with the range of possible analyses of English.

  • I think the question is more about the label ‘Phonetics’ at the top, which is arguably incorrect (from a linguist’s point of view). The transcriptions themselves are fine. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 21 '20 at 7:59

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