Narrow vs. broad transcription

Phonetic transcription may aim to transcribe the phonology of a language, or it may wish to go further and specify the precise phonetic realisation. In all systems of transcription we may therefore distinguish between broad transcription and narrow transcription. Broad transcription indicates only the more noticeable phonetic features of an utterance, whereas narrow transcription encodes more information about the phonetic variations of the specific allophones in the utterance. The difference between broad and narrow is a continuum. One particular form of a broad transcription is a phonemic transcription, which disregards all allophonic difference.

For example, one particular pronunciation of the English word little may be transcribed using the IPA as /ˈlɪtl̩/ or [ˈlɪtɫ̩]; the broad, phonemic transcription, placed between slashes, indicates merely that the word ends with phoneme /l/, but the narrow, allophonic transcription, placed between square brackets, indicates that this final /l/ ([ɫ]) is dark.

The advantage of the narrow transcription is that it can help learners to get exactly the right sound, and allows linguists to make detailed analyses of language variation. The disadvantage is that a narrow transcription is rarely representative of all speakers of a language. Most Americans and Australians would pronounce the /t/ of little as a tap [ɾ]. Many people in England would say /t/ as [ʔ] (a glottal stop) and/or the second /l/ as [w]. A further disadvantage in less technical contexts is that narrow transcription involves a larger number of symbols which may be unfamiliar to non-specialists.

The advantage of the broad transcription is that it allows statements to be made which apply right across a relatively diverse language community. It is thus more appropriate for the pronunciation data in foreign language dictionaries, which may discuss allophones in the preface but rarely give them for each entry. A rule of thumb in many linguistics contexts is therefore to use a narrow transcription when it is necessary for the point being made, but a broad transcription whenever possible.




Other transcription systems

The IPA is not the only phonetic transcription system in use. The other common Latin-based system is the Americanist phonetic notation, devised for representing American languages, but used by some US linguists as an alternative to the IPA. There are also sets of symbols specific to Slavic, Indic, Finno-Ugric, and Caucasian linguistics, as well as other regional specialties. The differences between these alphabets and IPA are relatively small, although often the special characters of the IPA are abandoned in favour of diacritics or digraphs.

Other alphabets, such as Hangul, may have their own phonetic extensions. There also exist featural phonetic transcription systems, such as Alexander Melville Bell's Visible Speech and its derivatives.

The International Phonetic Association recommends that a phonetic transcription should be enclosed in square brackets "[ ]". A transcription that specifically denotes only phonological contrasts may be enclosed in slashes "/ /" instead. If one is in doubt, it is best to use brackets, for by setting off a transcription with slashes one makes a theoretical claim that every symbol within is
phonemically contrastive for the language being transcribed.

Phonetic transcriptions try to objectively capture the actual pronunciation of a word, whereas phonemic transcriptions are model-dependent. For example, in The Sound Pattern of English, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle transcribed the English word night phonemically as /nixt/. In this model, the phoneme /x/ is never realized as [x], but shows its presence by "lengthening" the preceding vowel. The preceding vowel in this case is the phoneme /i/, which is pronounced [aɪ] when "long". So phonemic /nixt/ is equivalent to phonetic [naɪt], but underlying this analysis is the belief that historical sounds such as the gh in night may remain in a word long after they have ceased to be pronounced, or that a phoneme may exist in a language without ever being directly expressed. (This was later rejected by both Chomsky and Halle.)

For phonetic transcriptions, there is flexibility in how closely sounds may be transcribed. A transcription that gives only a basic idea of the sounds of a language in the broadest terms is called a broad transcription; in some cases this may be equivalent to a phonemic transcription (only without any theoretical claims). A close transcription, indicating precise details of the sounds, is called a narrow transcription. These are not binary choices, but the ends of a continuum, with many possibilities in between. All are enclosed in brackets.

For example, in some dialects the English word pretzel in a narrow transcription would be [ˈpʰɹ̥ʷɛʔt.sɫ̩], which notes several phonetic features that may not be evident even to a native speaker. An example of a broad transcription is [ˈpʰɹɛt.sɫ̩], which only indicates some of the easier to hear features. A yet broader transcription would be [ˈpɹɛ]. Here every symbol represents an unambiguous speech sound, but without going into any unnecessary detail. None of these transcriptions make any claims about the phonemic status of the sounds. Instead, they represent certain ways in which it is possible to produce the sounds that make up the word.

There are also several possibilities in how to transcribe this word phonemically, but here the differences are generally not of precision, but of analysis. For example, pretzel could be /ˈprɛ̩/ or /ˈpret.səl/. The special symbol for English r is not used, for it is not meaningful to distinguish it from a rolled r. The differences in the letter e reflect claims as to what the essential difference is between the vowels of pretzel and pray; there are half a dozen ideas in the literature as to what this may be. The second transcription claims that there are two vowels in the word, even if they can't both be heard, while the first claims there is only one.

However, phonemic transcriptions may also be broad or narrow, or perhaps it would be better to say abstract vs. concrete. They may show a fair amount of phonetic detail, usually of a phoneme's most common allophone, but because they are abstract symbols they do not need to resemble any sound at all directly. Phonemic symbols will frequently be chosen to avoid diacritics as much as possible, under a 'one sound one symbol' policy, or may even be restricted to the ASCII symbols of a typical keyboard. For example, the English word church may be transcribed as /ʧɝʧ/, a close approximation of its actual pronunciation, or more abstractly as /crc/, which is easier to type. Phonemic symbols should always be explained, especially when they are as divergent from actual pronunciation as /crc/.

Occasionally a transcription will be enclosed in pipes ("| |"). This goes beyond phonology into
morphological analysis. For example, the words pets and beds could be transcribed phonetically as [pʰɛʔts] and [b̥ɛdz] (in a fairly narrow transcription), and phonemically as /pets/ and /bedz/. Because /s/ and /z/ are separate phonemes in English (unlike Spanish, for example), they receive separate symbols in the phonemic analysis. However, you probably recognize that underneath this, they represent the same plural ending. This can be indicated with the pipe notation. If you believe the plural ending is essentially an s, as English spelling would suggest, the words can be transcribed |pets| and |beds|. If, as most linguists would probably suggest, it is essentially a z, these would be |petz| and |bedz|.

To avoid confusion with IPA symbols, it may be desirable to specify when native orthography is being used, so that, for example, the English word jet is not read as "yet". This is done with angle brackets or chevrons: 〈jet〉. It is also common to italicize such words, but the chevrons indicate specifically that they are in the original language's orthography, and not in English transliteration.