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Phonemic transcription vs. narrow transcription

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

What is phonemic transcription?

Phonemic transcription /foʊˈni:mɪk trænˈskrɪpʃən/ is the most common type of phonetic transcription. This is the type that is used in English dictionaries. This is the type that we talk about on Antimoon.

Phonemic transcription is also called broad transcription, as opposed to narrow transcription (more on that later).

How does phonemic transcription work?

Suppose we have two different English sounds. Should we give them separate symbols in transcriptions? In phonemic transcription, the answer is “yes” only if there is an English word where saying one sound instead of another changes the meaning.

For example, saying “d” instead of “t” in the word bet changes the meaning (the word becomes bed), therefore we use separate symbols for “d” and “t” in phonemic transcriptions. In other words, we say that “t” and “d” are two separate phonemes.

On the other hand, the flap t (in this pronunciation of the word letter) and the regular “t” (in this one) are two very different sounds. However, there are no English words where saying the flap t instead of the regular “t” (or the other way around) changes the meaning. Therefore, in phonemic transcription, we use the same symbol for the flap t and the regular “t”. In other words, we say that the flap t and the regular “t” are the same phoneme.

More examples

Each of these examples gives two different sounds that are written with the same symbol in phonemic transcription. In other words, the two sounds are the same phoneme.

  • the “clear l” in lid and the “dark l” in hill (the second sounds like a vowel and the tongue does not touch the top of your mouth; the difference is especially audible in British English)
  • the “ee” sound in this pronunciation of meet and this one (the second is much longer)
  • the “p” sound in pin and spin (the first is accompanied by more breathing)
  • the “w” sound in wine and twine (the first is voiced, the second is not)

A. C. Gimson’s system

The most popular system of phonemic transcription was created by A. C. Gimson /ˈgɪmsən/, the editor of the 13th edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary, published in 1967. It is used (usually with certain small changes) in nearly all dictionaries published in Britain.

Gimson’s system uses symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent phonemes. Of course, some phonemes can be pronounced in many ways (as explained above), and therefore could be written with many IPA symbols. For example, the “t” phoneme can be spoken like the “regular t” sound (IPA symbol t) or like the flap t sound (IPA symbol or ɾ). In such cases, A. C. Gimson simply chose one of the possible IPA symbols. Thus, the “t” phoneme is represented by the t symbol.

There are two problems with Gimson’s phonemic system:

  • It uses IPA symbols for sounds to represent phonemes, which can be confusing, because the symbol t can mean both the t phoneme and the t sound. To help solve this problem, we place IPA symbols between slashes /'laɪk ˈðɪs/ when we mean phonemes and between square brackets [ˈlaɪk ˈðɪs] when we mean sounds.
  • Moreover, some of the phoneme symbols chosen by Gimson are problematic. For example, in Gimson’s system, rule is transcribed as /ru:l/. But the IPA symbol r does not correspond to the American or British r sound. It represents a different r sound — one used e.g. in Spanish and Polish. The American/British r sound is actually represented by another IPA symbol: ɹ. So a regular r seems a strange choice to represent the English r phoneme.

Narrow phonetic transcription

The other type of phonetic transcription is much more detailed than phonemic transcription. In narrow transcription, we use different symbols e.g. for:

  • the “p” sound in pin and spin (the first is accompanied by more breathing)
  • the “w” sound in wine and twine (the first is voiced, the second is not)
  • the flap t in this pronunciation of letter and regular “t” in this one (the first is voiced and “flapped”)

Narrow transcription also uses symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, it uses more symbols than Gimson’s phonemic transcription. Narrow transcription is mainly used by phoneticians and is not covered on Antimoon.