The difference between phonetic and phonemic

OK, I’ll admit it, I was not sure about the difference between “phonetic” and “phonemic”.

I decided to ask Jane Setter, my old phonetics tutor at University College London who is now Professor of Phonetics at Reading University.

Here is what she answered:

Hello Simon

A phonemic transcription involves the use of a small set of symbols which represent linguistic units in a language. This can be ascertained through the use of minimal pairs to test meaning and contrast. The symbols are therefore arbitrary representations of a speech sound as a linguistic unit and it doesn’t really matter which ones you use as long as you are consistent. This results in different systems representing the same thing – e.g., in CEPD we use /eə/ for the vowel in SQUARE, but Cruttenden suggested in the last revision of Gimson’ s Pronunciation of English that /ɛː/ could be used to represent the same phoneme for various reasons (i.e., most Modern RP speakers do not have a diphthong).

The purpose of a phonetic transcription – or an allophonic transcription – is to try to more clearly indicate exactly how sounds and words are articulated. It is therefore concerned with fine phonetic detail rather than meaning and contrast. I used to teach speech and language therapists and it was vitally important for them to understand the process of the articulation of typical sounds in English in order to be able to work out what was going wrong in atypical speech and decide how best to remediate it.

There is more information on the IPA chart here:

and you might find this useful:

Both phonemic and phonetic/allophonic transcriptions interact with spelling to some extent. It may be useful on some occasions to work with a phonetic/allophonic transcription, but in terms of units of meaning a phonemic transcription may be adequate. Also, the ability to do a narrow transcription is something which involves a lot of training (did you do the IPA strand of the summer course?) and so only a subset of people able to transcribe phonemically will have phonetic transcription skills.

I hope that’s helpful. I may publish this to my blog …


From her reply is can be concluded that, academically speaking, S4 is actually “phonemic” and not “phonetic”.

In the context of a given language, a set of sounds is used to convey meaning. For the speakers of that language, these sounds are distinct. However, if the sets of sounds used for other languages are considered, it can be seen that speakers of other languages may perceive some of the sounds another as the same, and some of the sounds in the other language to correspond to a range of different sounds in their own language.

Here are some examples to clarify this.

First, speakers of one language perceive some sounds of another language to be the same:

  • for the Japanese speaker, it is hard to distinguish between the r-sound and the l-sound, hence the old joke about telling in foreigner taking a plane to “Have a good fright”.
  • for the Chinese speaker from the province of Hunan, it is hard to distinguish between the l-sound and the n-sound, and the English-speaker may be surprised to be greeted with “Good afterloon”.

Second, speakers of one language perceive one sound of another language to be a set of different sounds:

  • for the Mandarin Chinese speaker, a syllable, such as “ma”, may be said in four ways using different “tones”. For the Chinese speaker these are totally different, for the outsider it is very hard to discriminate between them.

As far as S4 is concerned, as it is only for English, the difference between “phonetic” and “phonemic” is purely academic.

So I will just go on calling S4 “phonetic”.

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