Transcription in the linguistic sense is the systematic representation of spoken language (or: speech) in written form. Transcription should not be confused with translation, which means representing the meaning of a source language text in a target language (e.g. translating the meaning of an English text into Spanish), or with transliteration which means representing a text from one writing system in another writing system (e.g. transliterating a text in Cyrillic script into Latin script).
In the academic discipline of linguistics, transcription is an essential part of the methodologies of (among others) Phonetics, Conversation analysis, Dialectology and Sociolinguistics. It also plays an important role for several subfields of Speech technology. Common examples for transcriptions outside academia are the proceedings of a court hearing such as a criminal trial (by a court reporter) or a physician's recorded voice notes (medical transcription). This article focuses on transcription in linguistics.
Broadly speaking, there are two possible approaches to linguistic transcription. Phonetic transcription focuses on phonetic and phonological properties of spoken language. Systems for phonetic transcription thus furnish rules for mapping individual sounds or phonemes to written symbols. Systems for orthographic transcription, by contrast, consist of rules for mapping spoken words onto written forms as prescribed by the orthography of a given language. Phonetic transcription operates with specially defined character sets, usually the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Which type of transcription is chosen depends mostly on the research interests pursued. Since phonetic transcription strictly foregrounds the phonetic nature of language, it is most useful for phonetic or phonological analyses. Orthographic transcription, on the other hand, has a morphological and a lexical component alongside the phonetic component (which aspect is represented to which degree depends on the language and orthography in question). It is thus more convenient wherever meaning-related aspects of spoken language are investigated. Phonetic transcription is doubtlessly more systematic in a scientific sense, but it is also harder to learn, more time-consuming to carry out and less widely applicable than orthographic transcription.
Mapping spoken language onto written symbols is not as straightforward a process as may seem at first glance. Written language is an idealisation, made up of a limited set of clearly distinct and discrete symbols. Spoken language, on the other hand, is a continuous (as opposed to discrete) phenomenon, made up of a potentially unlimited number of components. There is no predetermined system for distinguishing and classifying these components and, consequently, no preset way of mapping these components onto written symbols. What is transcribed and how it is transcribed is therefore a matter of theoretical consideration, or - as Ochs (1979: 44) states in her influential paper "Transcription as theory" - "Transcription is a selective process reflecting theoretical goals and definitions". For example, a researcher interested in how participants in a conversation negotiate their turn taking (a typical research question in conversation analysis) may have to take into account different details concerning the timing of speakers' utterances, such as pauses, lengthening of syllables or the exact extension of simultaneous speech in a speaker overlap. He or she will consequently use a transcription system which has well-motivated rules for representing these phenomena. A dialectologist interested in a certain syntactic pattern of a regional language variant, by contrast, will have little need for this type of timing information. His or her transcription system may therefore choose not to represent such phenomena at all, or at least to treat them in less detail.
Transcription systems are sets of rules which define how spoken language is to represented in written symbols. Most phonetic transcription systems are based on the International Phonetic Alphabet or, especially in speech technology, on its derivative SAMPA. Examples for orthographic transcription systems (all from the field of conversation analysis or related fields) are:
Transcription was originally a process carried out manually, i.e. with pencil and paper, using an analogue sound recording stored on, e.g., a Compact Cassette. Nowadays, most transcription is done on computers. Recordings are usually digital audio or video files, and transcriptions are electronic documents. Specialized computer software exists to assist the transcriber in efficiently creating a digital transcription from a digital recording. Among the most widely used transcription tools in linguistic research are:
Other transcription software is developed for commercial sale.