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As well as its very precise (and debatable) use as a technical term in linguistics (see phonemic, phonetic, phonology), the adjective phonetic has a general use. It signifies ‘the representation of the sounds of a language in writing’. In English, our writing is basically phonetic – but with many strange and non-phonetic developments.

In our language, as in others, some of our spelling owes a great deal to etymology. We write the sound of ‘-f-’ (the unvoiced labio-dental fricative, to be technical) in at least two ways. The first is purely phonetic. This is the letter ‘f’ to indicate the sound ‘-f-’. When the word we are writing is derived from classical Greek, however, we represent the same sound by the letters ‘ph’ written as two letters symbolising one sound (a digraph). This is a representation of the one Greek letter ‘phi’ (φ). The English spelling shows the origin (and sometimes some of the meaning) of the word – in this case, the Greek words ‘photo-‘ (φωτο-), meaning ‘light’, and γραφειν (‘to write’). In a truly phonetic language like Italian, the equivalent to our word ‘photography’ is written with two ‘ f ’s – ‘fotografia’. (There is at least one other way of writing the sound of ‘-f-’ in English.)

For more information, see phonetic - further information and Phonemic, phonetic, phonology - further information.