A Beginner’s Guide to Phonetic Transcription

Dictionary result including the phonetic transcription of the word dictionary

As a key partner to businesses and professionals looking for transcription services, our team often gets asked about niche industry terms. Phonetic transcription is one which can come up, which is quite different from standard transcription audio and video content are transformed into text.

Phonetic transcription is not as commonplace outside of the realm of transcribers, linguists, and voice actors. Here is a beginner’s guide which breaks down phonetic transcription and when it is used and needed. 

What is phonetic transcription?

If this looks like gibberish to you, you’re not alone: [wɒt ɪz fəʊˈnɛtɪk trænsˈkrɪpʃᵊn?]

However, phonetic transcription uses a series of symbols which provide a visual representation of the sounds that make up words. Phonetic transcription is a valuable tool that communicates to readers how to correctly pronounce words.  

Typically, phonetic transcription uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the sound of words, including emphasis, pitch and intonation. The IPA was designed to be universal and cover all the sounds used in the spoken word, regardless of language.  

You may also be familiar with the phonetic alphabet, also commonly known as the NATO phonetic alphabet. However, the phonetic alphabet and phonetic transcription are not connected and shouldn’t be confused. The phonetic alphabet was developed to help make communication clearer and ensure the accuracy of messages delivered via telephone or radio. Phonetic transcription aids the reader in the correct pronunciation of words. 

Phonetic transcription vs phonemic transcription

You may also come across the term ‘phonemic transcription’, also called ‘broad transcription’. Phonemic transcription is designed to help with the pronunciation of words too, but there are some differences.  

Phonetic transcription (sometimes referred to as narrow transcription) delivers a precise version of how a word sounds, with every individual sound being represented by its associated symbol.  

Phonemic transcription offers a simplified version where two similar sounds can be represented by the same symbol if the word’s meaning remains clear. Simple often sounds appealing but in many cases, phonemic transcription does not deliver the detail required.  

There isn’t a universal alphabet used for phonemic transcription as each version is adapted to work with a specific language, stripping out sounds that aren’t used. For example, British English and US English have different phonemic alphabets. 

Why is phonetic transcription needed?

Individual pointing at the word hello

Understanding how a word is pronounced can be tricky. Even when you think you have a good grasp of a language, there are always some curveballs that seem to go against all the rules. 

For example, in English, the following words look like they should rhyme if we focus on how they are written.

  • Cough 
  • Dough 
  • Plough 

However, different sounds make up these words despite them looking similar. Confusing, right?

If you’re learning a language or need help deciphering how certain words should sound, IPA transcription can be your ally. Think of phonetic transcription as a friendly guide, helping you to navigate the complex world of languages. 

Plus, IPA phonetic transcription can be used across many languages, not just English. Although, you should note that the IPA is based on the Latin alphabet and therefore may be more challenging to use for those who are less familiar with this alphabet. 

Phonetic transcription of words examples

If we phonetically transcribe the earlier example words that look like they should rhyme, we can see some differences in the corresponding symbols. Even if you are not proficient with using the IPA, you can tell that the words will have different sounding endings. 

In the phonetic transcription, the endings of all three words differ. This reality is a clear indication that they should not be pronounced in the same way. Users of the IPA can use this information to decipher the correct way to say these and any other words.  

  • Cough – [kɒf] 
  • Dough – [dəʊ] 
  • Plough – [plaʊ] 

If we also compare two words that rhyme but are spelt differently, we can see the common sounds represented in the symbols at the end of the word. 

  • Plough – [plaʊ] 
  • Cow – [kaʊ] 

The IPA uses symbols rather than traditional letters. Some words can look vastly different from their orthographic counterparts, but there are some words that can look similar. 

  • Dress – [drɛs] 

If the examples and symbols look familiar, it’s because you’ve likely seen them in dictionaries – the old-school book versions as well as online editions. The IPA transcription is typically shown just above the definition of any given word. You may also have the handy option of listening to a recording online on how the word should be pronounced. 

Do I need a phonetic transcription?

Dictionary result including the phonetic transcription of the word design on a mobile phone

While transcribing phonetics can provide valuable detail and context, it is a specialist output that requires knowledge of the IPA to make it useful. In most cases, an orthographic transcript is the most suitable output. As the IPA uses a series of symbols, it can be difficult to navigate and is best used when you require the majority of the text in this format. 

There are tools available online that can help you to discover how to pronounce specific words. Google allows you to listen to how a word is pronounced and will even provide you with some options in some cases, such as British or American pronunciation. If you need help with just a handful of words, using standard (orthographic) verbatim transcription and simply looking up selected words will be quicker and easier. 

In most cases, even if a phonetic transcription is available, there are benefits to also having a traditional transcript, including: 

  • Providing a searchable document to help people to find and discover content. 
  • Allowing you to create closed captions for video content. 
  • Improving the accessibility of content. 
  • Supporting your SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) efforts as the text version of your audio and video content can then be indexed by search engines, aiding in the discoverability of you and your offerings. 

Professional transcription services such as Take Note’s, deliver high-quality transcripts with at least 99% accuracy. Using a professional provider can fast-track the creation of text versions of your video and audio files. Experienced transcribers are able to type at greater speed and more accurately than the average person. 

Who uses phonetic transcription?

As you may expect, phonetic transcription is popular with linguists and language teachers. Other professionals requiring guidance on how to pronounce words, such as singers and actors, can also benefit from phonetic transcription. A phonetic transcription of words can be particularly helpful for those navigating text in a non-native language or looking to understand a specific dialect or accent.  

If you’re learning a language, the IPA can be a useful tool. Plus, you don’t even need to learn the whole alphabet to reap the rewards. You can focus on the sound of specific letters and how they differ between your native language and the one you’re learning. This resource can help you to get to grips with everyday sounds and avoid some of the common mistakes that are all too easy to make. 

For example, in Spanish, a ‘j’ resembles the ‘h’ sound in English. Or, in Greek, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, ‘beta’, is pronounced as ‘vee-ta’. 

Phonetic transcription can also be helpful within organisations, especially those that operate across multi-territories. Employees can be supported by providing knowledge of how to pronounce brand names, technical or industry-specific terminology, as well as the names of individual colleagues and customers. Phonetic transcription can help to drive consistency and avoid any red-faced moments. 

If it’s more standard transcription of your video and audio content that you’re in search of after reading the above, feel free to consult us. You can upload your content to the Take Note secure online portal and have it transcribed with 99%+ accuracy and at a guaranteed turnaround time. 

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Kat Hounsell