Narrow Phonetic Transcription


The transcriptions we have considered so far were phonemic transcriptions, (also used synonymously with broad transcriptions) which contain the minimum amount of phonetic detail needed in order to be able to distinguish between words.

A narrow transcription contains phonetic detail which can often be predicted by ‘rules’.

Today, we will discuss some of the main “rules” for converting a broad transcription to a narrow transcription.

Remember that any narrow, ie. phonetic, transcription must be enclosed in [ ] brackets.

“Rules” for Narrow Transcription

You need to understand clearly that the guidelines to narrow transcription provided below are not really “rules” but more of predictions.

That is, the uncritical application of these guidelines will not always result in a perfect narrow transcription.

Speakers are at liberty to modify their pronunciations in various ways.

Speakers differ from each other in their precise pronunciation and the same speaker may vary the pronunciation of the same word in different contexts.

Guidelines for transcription are therefore probabilistic in nature in that they suggest the most likely pronunciations.

It is up to you to carefully listen to the actual recordings when doing your transcriptions and to record each speaker’s actual pronunciation (especially in the assignment).

Narrow Transcription of /r/

It has been a long convention in English phonetics and phonology for the phoneme /r/ to be represented by the symbol “r”.

This has simplified the symbolic representation of this phoneme which can be realized in a number of different ways in various English dialects (alveolar, post-alveolar and retroflex approximants are the most common, but alveolar trills and taps as well as uvular trills also occur in some dialects).

In General English this phoneme is usually realized as an alveolar or a post-alveolar approximant.

Therefore, the first thing that you should do when converting a broad transcription of general English to a narrow transcription, is to convert all instances of /r/ to r transcription
Aspiration and release of oral stops

(i) Aspiration

Voiceless oral stops are aspirated before stressed vowels/diphthongs in the same syllable.

The aspiration rule does not apply when voiceless oral stops follow /s/ (in the same syllable).

unaspirated stops
(ii) Syllable and word-final (VC) oral stops

What we have discussed so far, are on oral stop aspiration and release, concentrating on initial or CV stops.

Word and syllable-final oral stops or VC stops show somewhat different patterns of release to those shown by CV stops.

When carrying out a narrow transcription of VC stops we are particularly interested in whether the release of the stop is audible or inaudible.

This applies to both voiced and voiceless stops.

It is customary, when transcribing English to leave audibly released stops unmarked (ie. [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g]) and to indicate stops without audible release as: unreleased stops
Here are some examples of pairs of words with and without audible release:

no audible release


(i) Devoicing Voiced Oral Stops and Fricatives

Voiced oral stops and voiced fricatives are usually devoiced in the following contexts:
a) Before a pause (eg. at the end of a sentence or utterance):

b) Before a voiceless or devoiced obstruent (ie. before oral stops, affricates or fricatives)


(ii) Devoicing Approximants Following Voiceless Fricatives

When approximants immediately follow voiceless fricatives they are often, but not always, devoiced.

Note that this devoicing doesn’t always happen.

It usually happens when the fricative and approximant are in the same syllable.

It also seems to be more likely to happen when the syllable is stressed.

devoicing stressed syllables

Clear and Dark realizations of /l/

i) Before pure vowels, diphthongs and /j/, /l/ is realized as [l] (clear ‘l’).
l before vowels

ii) Before consonants (except /j/) or a pause (eg. the end of a sentence or utterance), the allophone is dark (velarized)

velarized l

Dark l is also usually found at the end of a word even when the following word starts with a vowel.

This articulation clearly marks the /l/ as belonging to the end of the first word rather than the beginning of the second word.
l at end of word

Assimilation of alveolars

The following assimilations should be noted.

Alveolar assimilation is extremely common, but exceptions to these rules do occur, even in casual connected speech.

Assimilations are much less likely to occur in careful speech and particularly when articulating isolated words carefully.

i) Labiodental nasals before labiodentals
Labiodental nasals before labiodentals

ii) Dental nasal and oral stops before dentals

dental nasals

Syllabic consonants

All syllabic consonants must be marked with a diacritic (as shown in the examples below) in narrow transcription.

syllabic consonants


Nasalization is particularly likely to occur when a low vowel such as low vowels occurs next to a nasal consonant.

Nasalization can occur for any vowel adjacent to a nasal consonant but it tends to be stronger and more audible for low vowels.

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  • These are lecture notes, but I shall try and post some exercises soon. Thanks for the idea Sanaa 🙂

  • I really thank you for these considerable and well done explanations,,,I have consulted plenty of sites to seek some information about a detailed phonetic transcription with all the components of the IPA and you are the first to give this complete work ,,,I am grateful , I have an important exam next week in this subject and I would like to have some exercises with corrections to train as far as the narrow transcription is concerned.

  • Your explanations are very good!
    The best thing about phonetics in WEB.
    But I’d like to know something about pre-fortis clipping, can you help me?

  • Thanks…It’s actually elaborated on next page,,,really great work….
    Thanks for sharing such nice notes with us….
    Noor. Lect.Eng

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