Phonemic Transcription 101: Visualizing Sound

By: Verbit Editorial
woman wearing Sony headphones working on audio on her machine

Businesses worldwide rely on transcription solutions to improve the accessibility and efficacy of their communications. Providing accurate, readable versions of meetings, lectures and video content significantly broadens the reach of a business’s marketing efforts. Transcription is also a valuable tool for business leaders looking to improve the quality of their companies’ internal communications.

However, while standard transcription documents what people say and who is speaking, it neglects to include how they speak. This oversight means that messaging can get lost when companies expand their marketing efforts to new regions. Thanks to broad variations in languages, dialects or pronunciations, nuanced differences in speech can be a critical aspect of communication.

That’s where phonemic transcription comes in. Phonemic transcription offers a visual illustration of the basic sounds that make up a word. As a result, a phonemic transcript can help safeguard against embarrassing or potentially offensive mispronunciations during important communications.

Table of Contents:

What is Phonemic Transcription?

Phonemic transcription involves a series of symbols representing the phonemes that comprise a spoken word. In many ways, it’s similar to how children sound out words while learning how to read. The transcript breaks down each word into a series of smaller sounds. By sounding out these phonemes, readers can properly pronounce the word as a whole.

Phonemic transcription relies on symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). While there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, 44 distinct phonemes comprise the IPA. This disparity exists because in the English language, for example, one letter can represent more than one sound.

Similarly, some phonemes represent multiple sounds. Using fewer identifying symbols is a style of transcription sometimes referred to as broad phonemic transcription. Broad phonetic transcription doesn’t account for subtle sound variations between languages. It also ignores differences in pronunciation related to each speaker’s distinct accent or dialect. Phonetic transcription differs because it can account for these more nuanced language variations.

What is the Difference Between Phonetic and Phonemic Transcription?

While phonemic transcription serves as a basic blueprint for the pronunciation of words, phonetic transcription offers a more detailed representation of the way speakers articulate and form a word. In addition to the standard phonemes, phonetic transcription implements a series of diacritical markings that denote aspirations, stresses and vowel lengths. There are even markings that represent subtle differences in the qualities of sounds. For example, modifying a vowel with a diacritic may inform whether the length of that vowel sound is long or short.

Phonemic transcription is a great way of notating standard pronunciations. However, it is less useful for individuals looking to transcribe the exact way a specific individual or group pronounces a word, name or phrase. In contrast, phonetic transcription is similar to verbatim transcription in that it includes even subtle nuances and sounds. Phonemic transcription is more analogous to non-verbatim transcription because both convey the general pronunciation without fillers or additional sounds.

arms typing on a laptop - Phonemic Transcription

Phonemic Transcription Examples

The best way to understand phonemic versus phonetic transcription is to review some samples of it in context. Here are a few examples that indicate how each system would represent a couple of common words.

Example 1: Tenth

Phonemic transcription: /tɛnθ/

The transcription above uses four phonemes to represent the four sounds that make up the word “tenth.” The phonemic transcription is between the /forward slash brackets/, and doesn’t include any additional diacritical markings. 

Phonetic transcription: [tʰɛ̃n̪θ]

The phonetic transcription is placed within [square brackets]. It uses the same basic symbols as the phonemic transcription, but it also includes several additional diacritical markings. The superscript “h” denotes the initial “t” sound as an aspirated consonant. The marking on the “e” sound indicates that it’s nasalized, while the one on the “n” sound dictates that it’s dentalized.

Example 2: Easy

Phonemic transcription: /ˈizi/

This phonemic transcription uses three phonemes to represent the three sounds in the word “easy.” Because this word contains two syllables, it also includes an accent mark to denote that the speaker should stress the first syllable of the word. 

Phonetic transcription: [ˈiːzi]

This phonetic transcription includes the same three phonemes as the previous transcription, but it also includes a colon after the “i” symbol to denote that the “e” sound in the word is a long vowel sound.

These examples showcase the many possible modifications for the common sounds English language speakers use to communicate. The phonetic transcription conveys these subtleties effectively. However, readers may struggle to interpret the combination of phonemes and diacritics without a detailed understanding of IPA transcription. Phonemic transcription, on the other hand, only requires a basic understanding of the phonemes that make up the International Phonetic Alphabet.

What Are the Possible Uses of Phonemic Transcription?

Phonemic transcription is a valuable resource for businesses that frequently host communications with audiences from diverse regions and countries. Speakers may choose to keep on hand the phonemic transcriptions of words, phrases and names that they’re at risk of mispronouncing.

Phonemic transcription also serves as the backbone of Automatic Speech Recognition technologies. This technology powers automatic transcription software, as well as automatic closed captioning services. Artificial intelligence converts phonemes from audio and video recordings to written text using a Pronunciation Dictionary. The software’s Language Model then interprets these sounds to generate the most likely sequence of words.

The result of this process is essentially a rough draft of a written transcript. Although AI generates transcripts quickly and conveniently, the results tend to contain many errors. Humans then need to make manual corrections to generate an accurate transcript. That’s why Verbit’s professional transcription service utilizes artificial intelligence and human transcribers to produce up to 99% targeted accuracy for transcripts within industry-leading turnaround times.

man in a video call on his laptop on the table with his notes, mobile phone and water bottle

Transcription Technology Can Meet Diverse Needs

Partnering with professional transcription services like Verbit can help businesses streamline and scale their accessibility and marketing initiatives. Offering multiple kinds of transcription solutions to employees and clients supports efforts to boost brand confidence, as well as workplace inclusivity. Phonemic transcription, in particular, serves as a valuable resource for companies expanding their efforts to new markets. With phonemic transcription, companies reduce the risk of problematic mispronunciations and miscommunications.

Comprehensive transcripts also improve engagement and accessibility among participants and viewers who are Deaf or hard of hearing, as well as individuals with specific learning needs. Verbit provides live transcription, audio description, closed captioning and more to support the ever-evolving needs of businesses navigating an increasingly digital landscape. Reach out to learn more about how Verbit’s accessibility tools and software integrations save businesses time and money while supporting their commitment to diversity and inclusion.