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J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics

It may be worth drawing attention to the fact that the title of this book is, designedly, 'A Practical Introduction to Phonetics' and not 'An Introduction to Practical Phonetics', for it is, indeed, an introduction to general, or theoretical, phonetics, though it proceeds towards that goal in a highly practical way.

Readers are introduced to the phonetic classification of the sounds of speech by means of a series of simple introspective experiments carried out inside their own vocal tracts, their own throats and mouths. By actually making sounds (very often silently) and attending to the muscular sensations that accompany their production one can discover how they are produced and learn how to describe and classify them.

At first sight 'making sounds silently' may appear contradictory, but, as Abercrombie (1967) has aptly pointed out, speech is 'audible gesture' and the principal aim of this book is to enable the reader to discover and to analyse the gestural aspect of speech (upon which most phonetic classification is based) and to bring it under conscious control. This must be done, to a large extent, in silence, since the auditory sensations of loud speech tend to mask the motor sensations, which are the perceptual accompaniment of the gestural aspect of speech.

That this kind of experimentation is an effective means of acquiring a knowledge of the categories and principles of general phonetics I know from personal experience, for this was precisely how I learned phonetics as a boy, without a teacher, eagerly reading Sweet's Primer of Phonetics and constantly experimenting in my own vocal tract.

Although, as this reference to boyhood experience suggests, phonetics is a fascinating hobby for young people, it is primarily an indispensable tool for all those adults who have to work with language: students of linguistics, teachers and students of languages, teachers of the deaf, the hearing-impaired themselves who may be striving to acquire intelligible speech, actors, and many others. Armed with the understanding of the basic principles of phonetics which this book seeks to inculcate, they should be able to read and fully understand any specialist work on whatever aspect of phonetics is of special interest to them.

Much of the material of the book has been used for some years past at the University of Michigan, in teaching phonetics to large groups of students of linguistics, speech pathology, anthropology, languages, education, drama, and many other fields. I am grateful to all those students who contributed comments and suggestions, and I should also like to thank Dr Harriet Mills who read most of the text and made numerous valuable criticisms.

J. C. C.
Februam 1988

From the preface to the 2nd edition of J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics

Catford's book on phonetics deserves more than a footnote in my incomplete Differences Between English-Spanish Pronunciation series. Reading and doing the exercises in A Practical Introduction to Phonetics is a pleasure. The curriculum of the average ESL-producing American school lacks a study of the art of pronunciation. Not only is the ESLtard unable to speak another language, but they1 don't understand their own ability pronounce words in their mother tongue! They rely on subconscious muscle memory acquired at a young age. A Practical Introduction to Phonetics's terse explanations, abstract diagrams,2 and bite-sized exercises provide a means for adult Americans to recover from one of the many missing elements in their education.

I became interested in understanding pronunciation after reading Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Inspired by the phonetician protagonist, I sought out a book on phonetics. A comment on the Amazon page of some mammoth linguistic textbook recommended Catford's book as a good way to learn about the field. After reading the preface and introduction in a pdf version found on, I bought a paper copy. The preface3 contains a gem of advice: when you attempt to pronounce new words, you need to mouth them out silently so you can focus on the position of your vocal tract organs. Their form determines the sound wave you will produce, but it is difficult to determine their position when they are vibrating from the air blown out by your lungs.4

The book has an intelligent layout of exercises. The exercises isolate concepts and slowly build off of each other. Learning to control one's vocal tract with these exercises is a good way to learn-to-learn, since you can practice phonetics at anytime without any props.5 After I learned how to pronounce many of the phonemes in the book, I was confident in my ability to learn how to make other sounds.6

Going through A Practical Introduction to Phonetics helped me fix long standing problems with my Spanish pronunciation. From the perspective of Catford's book, if you try to learn "just the Spanish r trill" then you are jumping ahead to exercise 44 and skipping fundamentals. It is better to take the time to learn the many different sounds from the many different languages in Catford's book than to tunnel vision a target foreign language.

  1. we []
  2. The book has anatomical diagrams placed next to schematics of similar devices to help illustrate the function of an organ. []
  3. The one quoted above. []
  4. When learning to pronounce foreign words the intuitive process is to repeatedly say a word until the sound made matches the sound produced by the foreign speaker. The folly of this method can be readily explained by an analogy to learning an instrument.

    Imagine while being instructed on how to play the piano you were asked to play back an isolated note. Instead of watching the instructor to see which key he pressed, you looked away and listened to the sound made and tried to press each key until you could hear the matching note. This ridiculous method is the way most people attempt to mimic the creation of a sound in a foreign language.

    Instead of trying to match the audio output directly, one should try to match the articulation of the foreigner. The correct sound will follow. []

  5. But if you live with other people, they may not be too amused once you start enunciating all your new phonemes. []
  6. I taught myself the loud finger-in-mouth dog whistle. This one must be practiced alone. []

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