What is Phonetic Transcription?

Generally, when transcribing an audio into text, you want it to properly convey the message of the speaker within the audio.

If the speaker says “hello”, you want the text within the transcription to also say “hello.”

This is the basic principle of what is known as ‘orthographic’ transcription.

An orthographic transcription depicts text exactly as you are reading it right now.

Of course this seems obvious, but you may not know that there is another way to transcribe audio into text.

That method is known as ‘phonetic’ transcription.

Here’s what that means.

What is Phonetic Transcription?

When you type something out, you are using a prearranged set of symbols that have preestablished sounds associated with them.

If you are reading this right now, you know what is being said because you understand how each symbol is supposed to be pronounced.

However, that isn’t always useful for certain cases.

For example, if you are trying to read the Finnish word ‘Löyly’, you might think it is pronounced something like ‘loy-lee’, when in fact it the correct pronunciation is closer to ‘low-loo’.

Why does this matter?

Well it matters because many languages use the same, or very similar alphabets as English.

However, they may have assigned different sounds to their characters.

This will render an orthographic transcription useless in some cases.

Phonetic transcription uses the International Phonetic Alphabet to transcribe words exactly as they are pronounced, rather than how they look.

This results in certain funny symbols that may not be immediately recognizable to those who don’t understand them.

For example, the word ‘goodbye’ in a phonetic alphabet spelling would be:


The symbols used perfectly convey the actual pronunciation of the word. So, sentences such as: ‘Hello, how are you today?’ Will become:

‘Hɛˈləʊ, haʊ ɑː juː təˈdeɪ?’

Why is Phonetic Transcription Useful?

Truth be told, phonetic transcription is an incredibly rare occurrence.

For the vast majority of situations, an orthographic transcription is going to be needed.

However, there are situations where a phonetic transcription could be useful.

For example:

  • When studying a new language, you may want to document exactly how your teacher pronounces the words as opposed to how they are written.
  • Situations where an audio is filled with unfamiliar words, such as names, technical industry terms, medical or biological terminology, etc,.
  • Situations where you need to read unfamiliar words aloud.

These situations make phonetic transcription very useful.

In all other cases, it is generally best to refer to orthographic transcription as usual.

Final Thoughts

Understanding what type of transcription you need is important to getting the best result.

At Focus on Listening we offer high-quality transcription services to you for your professional, educational or personal needs.

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