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What Is Narrow Transcription?

By B. Turner
Updated May 16, 2024
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Narrow transcription is a tool used during the phonetic transcription process. In phonetic transcription, written symbols are used to represent spoken words or sounds. These symbols are derived from the international phonetic alphabet, (IPA) which is the most widely used transcription language in the world. In a narrow transcription, the writer attempts to capture as much detail about the sound as possible. Rather than simply trying to capture the word itself, the transcriber is focused on how the sounds were produced.

Phonetic transcription can be divided into two basic categories, which include both narrow and broad transcription. In a broad transcription, the writer ignores the details and focuses on what words were used, rather than how they were pronounced. Broad transcriptions may be identical for two people who speak the same series or words, as the transcription will not reflect individual accents, pronunciation, and speech patterns.

Narrow transcription captures as many details as possible about the spoken words. In addition to noting the words themselves, the transcriber notes how each sounded, and how the speaker formed each sound. This is accomplished through the use of diacritics, or special symbols used in conjunction with the IPA. Diacritics allow the transcriber to capture unique differences in pronunciation, such as a pause between letters, a nasally quality or a missed letter. They also capture the placement of the tongue, lips, and teeth as each sound is pronounced.

Most sources agree that narrow transcription is much harder to master than broad transcription. In addition to learning the entire IPA, the transcriber must also understand how to apply diacritics. To perform this type of transcription successfully, one must have significant experience observing the use of the mouth, tongue, and lips of speakers, and capturing their movements on paper. It is also helpful to understand how different movements of the mouth impact pronunciation and sound quality.

A narrow transcription can serve as a powerful tool for speech therapists and pathologists. While speech itself is short-lived, a phonetic transcription can be kept and studied over time. By studying how patients form sounds, the therapist is better equipped to come up with an effective treatment plan to improve speech. This process is also used by linguistics professionals, who rely on this technique to study and understand the differences and similarities between various languages. Finally, narrow transcription may be used to capture words or sounds in a meeting, interview, or legal setting.

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