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Review of  Applying Phonetics


Reviewer: Janine A. E. Strandberg
Book Title: Applying Phonetics
Book Author: Murray J. Munro
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Issue Number: 32.1818

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Review:
SUMMARY

Applying Phonetics: Speech Science in Everyday Life by Murray J. Munro (2020) provides a thorough introduction to the field of phonetics, as well as practical applications in speech science. In essence, it is a textbook which, according to the author himself, is designed to “appeal to students with little or no background in linguistics or phonetics” (p. xii). At the end of each chapter, suggested exercises alongside recommendations for further reading and analysis are included. Additionally, the book links to a companion website with supplementary material, primarily external sources and potential answers for the exercises within the book.

The book is divided into three separate parts, out of which the first two constitute an introduction to phonetics and associated fields in linguistics. Part I, titled What is Speech? comprises five chapters, providing the reader with an essential overview of phonetics. The first chapter places human language in the context of sounds produced by other animals, while also briefly discussing non-linguistic communication by animals and humans alike. In Chapter 2, the reader is provided with explanations of the structures and functions of the vocal apparatus and their roles in the production of speech. The third chapter introduces phonetic transcription, focusing on the International Phonetic Alphabet but also mentioning other transcription systems used by speech technologists. The fourth chapter discusses the categorisation of speech sounds, describing the concepts of manner and place of articulation as well as voicing for consonants, and tongue and lip configuration for vowels. As the final chapter of Part I, Chapter 5 briefly focuses on prosody, explaining the struggle of defining what a syllable is and familiarising the reader with the concepts of stress, rhythm, and intonation.

The second part of the book, Part II: Speech as a Human Phenomenon, consists of three chapters, the first of which, Chapter 6, highlights some of the findings and controversies within evolutionary linguistics. Chapter 7 examines speech across the lifespan, from fetal exposure to the human voice to the effects of old age on speech. In the eighth chapter, speech disorders and dysfunctions are examined, with specific focus on stuttering, laryngectomy, and aphasias.

Part III: Applying Phonetics examines various applications of phonetics, making up over half of the book with a total of seven chapters. Chapter 9 examines speech synthesis, advancing from its inception in the 1700s to the Text-To-Speech (TTS) systems available today. The following chapter, Chapter 10, gives an overview of the challenges of forensic speech science. Chapter 11 discusses second language (L2) accents and pronunciation in L2 instruction, while Chapter 12 examines accent training for actors and vocalists. Presenting further applications of speech in the context of the arts, Chapter 13 focuses on speech in animation, ventriloquism, and constructed languages. Chapter 14 examines phonetics in the business world, covering automatic speech recognition, the VOCODER and its use for voice manipulation, as well as speech in branding and marketing. The final chapter tackles ethical issues within phonetics, highlighting the problematic term ‘voiceprint’ and explaining the concept of vocal stress analysis, as well as briefly mentioning potential drawbacks of speech synthesis in relation to deepfakes and the challenges of accent discrimination.

EVALUATION

Munro’s Applying Phonetics (2020) is a very comprehensive and approachable introduction to the world of phonetics, packed into what seems like a succinct book of 240 pages. Starting from the fundamentals of defining communication in Chapter 1, the book progresses through the ways in which speech is produced, how it is segmented, how it changes across the lifespan, how it may be affected by speech disorders, and finally, to different ways in which we can apply knowledge about phonetics and speech science to different aspects of our lives. The language of the book is very accessible, and, as no background knowledge of linguistics is required, the book is a very appropriate textbook for students in phonetics. Chapters 2 and 4, which describe the human vocal tract and the production of speech sounds, respectively, are particularly impressive in the level of detail they provide without being intimidating to the reader. Chapter 2 dissects the processes of pulmonary ventilation, phonation, and articulation in a simple, yet exhaustive, fashion, while Chapter 4 allows the reader to work through the intricacies of consonant and vowel production in a more practical way than theoretical books can usually accomplish.

It is interesting then, given the extraordinary dedication given to providing the fundamentals of phonetics in such an approachable way, that the focus of the book has been placed mainly on Part III. Undeniably, it is very refreshing to read an introduction to the field that also incorporates ways in which phonetic theory can be applied to everyday life, including forensic speech science, speech synthesis, or accent coaching, However, although Part III does make up half the total length of the book, and these chapters provide interesting overviews of various applications of speech science, some of the sections included are too brief to give sufficient information about the topic they introduce. For example, the problematic concepts of accent reduction and discrimination based on accent, which would certainly warrant considerable discussion, are condensed into a single page in Chapter 15 (p. 192). Part III of the book also includes some unusual choices in structure, such as only including mentions of dialects and regional variation in Chapter 12, Section 1: Accents for Actors. Consequently, while the book in its entirety comes across as a great theoretical introduction to phonetics, the chapters in Part III tend to be the least consistent. As such, it is curious that the title of the book places sole emphasis on Part III: Applying Phonetics.

The companion website is promoted as an additional feature of the book, but it does not provide a great deal of supplementary material. The single webpage with additional resources contains seven downloadable audio files (such as examples of creaky voice and synthetic speech), alongside a text file with suggested answers for the exercises and a few links to external resources. While this material may be convenient for some readers, the book is arguably just as useful without the companion site.

An important factor to point out is the relative emphasis on the English language and the English-speaking world. This approach is by no means unique to this book, as a vast number of other introductions to phonetics have to varying degrees focused specifically on English (e.g., Rogers, 2000; Knight, 2012; Ladefoged & Johnson, 2014). The reader may, to an extent, presume that a book written in English would focus on the English language; however, nothing in the name of this book, its description on the publisher’s website, or the foreword by the author insinuate that the book would be mainly concerned with English phonetics. Yet, the majority of examples ranging from vowel and consonant production to variation are based on English, and the book includes an appendix on North American English vowels and consonants. Although this focus is to a degree understandable, given that the expertise of the author is based on exceptional knowledge of specifically English phonetics, it is unfortunate that in most cases the non-English examples that are included seem to have been added as an afterthought.

Regarding language use, the wording is accessible and clearly intended to be straightforward and informative, which is very appropriate for a student textbook. However, lecturers assigning the book should be aware that the author exclusively uses phonetic terminology typical for North America without acknowledging that there may be alternative terms for certain concepts. Specifically, with regards to high versus low vowels, no mention is made of the fact these are also often referred to as close and open vowels (p. 36); for beginners in phonetics, this omission could potentially lead to confusion when students encounter articles not using North American terminology.

Despite the minor shortcomings detailed above, Applying Phonetics is not only one of the most informative introductions to phonetics that I have encountered, it is certainly also one of the most approachable. Although a few sections in Part III have some limitations, these chapters nevertheless deliver on their promise to provide a unique and fascinating overview of the ways in which phonetics can be applied to different aspects of everyday life. Yet, while the name of the book indicates that the focus is on the third part on applying speech science, I believe the main asset of the book lies in the first half of it; these chapters contain a great wealth of information about phonetic theory, described in meticulous detail but delivered in a simple and accessible way. The author’s passion for speech science and the fact that the content was first conceived as a university course are both discernible in the excellent explanations and relatable examples provided. I would not hesitate to recommend this book as a textbook for beginners in phonetics, whether they are undergraduate students or other interested parties.

REFERENCES

Knight, Rachael-Anne (2012). Phonetics: A Coursebook. Cambridge University Press.

Ladefoged, Peter & Johnson, Keith (2014). A Course in Phonetics. 7th Edition. Cengage Learning.

Rogers, Henry (2000). The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics. Routledge.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Janine A. E. Strandberg is a doctoral candidate in Theoretical and Empirical Linguistics at the Center for Language and Cognition Groningen (CLCG) at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Combining approaches from sociolinguistic and bilingual transfer research in the context of minority and heritage languages, her doctoral research project focuses on phonetic and lexical variation in the Finland-Swedish variety. She is also interested in language policy, the sociolinguistics of globalization, and linguistic landscape research.

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