International Phonetic Alphabet

  • By Jesse Hallett
  •  • 
  • 2nd Oct 2007
  •  • 
  • 7 min read
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  • Tags: 
  • linguistics

In last week’s post I provided phonetic transcriptions of some example words using the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short. I thought it would be helpful to follow that up with some information about what the IPA is, and how to read it. And as a bonus, after learning about IPA transcription you will be able to better read pronunciation guides on Wikipedia.

You have probably seen many phonetic transcriptions before - especially as pronunciation guides in dictionaries. In dictionaries it is common to see a transcription convention that uses English spelling conventions to represent sounds. For example, the word “elucidate” might be transcribed as (ee-LOO-suh-date). That system is handy because it is immediately familiar to anyone who has experience reading stuff in English. But it has drawbacks too. There are a few main problems that are especially important for linguists; there are lots of linguists all over the world who are used to languages with entirely different spelling conventions. For example, the sound in English that is represented as “y” - the consonant, not the vowel - is written in Icelandic as “j”. There are also a lot of languages with sounds that just don’t exist in English. Linguists need to be able to transcribe those sounds; but since they don’t exist in English there is no spelling convention to represent them. In fact there is no one language with enough spelling conventions to represent every sound in every language in the world. And finally, English spelling is ambiguous, as is the spelling of almost any language. That is already demonstrated by the need to add a note to distinguish “y” the consonant from “y” the vowel or any of the other vowel sounds represented by “y”.

To solve all these problems, a group of linguistics developed the International Phonetic Alphabet in the late nineteenth century. The first standardized version was created in 1888. But it has been revised somewhat since then. The purpose of IPA is to provide a standard set of symbols that are used to represent sounds so that the same symbols always represent the sounds, even to people from different language backgrounds. Using the IPA it is theoretically possible to represent every sound in every language in the world. Though occasionally a new language is discovered with a new sound that we didn’t know anything about before, which has to be quickly added to the IPA.

IPA was originally developed by French and British linguists, so it uses characters derived from the Latin alphabet and symbols are matched to sounds in a ways that are generally familiar to Europeans. But even in the Western world people have different ideas about how to spell things, so the IPA adopts some different phonetic conventions from different languages. For example, I mentioned earlier that the sound represented by “y” in English is spelled “j” in, among others languages, Icelandic; and in fact the symbol for that sound in IPA is [j]. Here is the complete IPA chart in its most recent revision. And by the way: in IPA, the word “elucidate” is transcribed [i’lu.sə.deɪt].

The sound an IPA symbol represents is described by the place of articulation of the sound, an the manner of articulation. When you voice a consonant you, you press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, or in some cases you press your lips together or put the tip of your tongue between your teeth. The exact spot on where you press your tongue is the place of articulation. For example, when you say [t] you press the tip of your tongue against a spot towards the front of your mouth called the alveolar ridge; whereas when you say [k] you press the back of your tongue against your soft palate, which linguists call the velum. [t] and [k] have the same manner of articulation - they are both plosives, which means that they are articulated by completely stopping air from flowing out of the mouth for a moment. But they have different places of articulation. Early on in a linguist’s career he learns all about the structures of the mouth, throat, and nose to learn how each can be used to produce various sounds. I will explain some of the details in future articles; in the meantime it would probably be easiest to look up IPA symbols using this IPA chart on Wikipedia, which is specially designed for English speakers and provides example words to illustrate each sound.

Wikipedia provides the transcription for the English “r” as [ɹ]. This is the most technically correct transcription, since in IPA [r] represents a rolled “r”, which is heard in Spanish. In linguistics speak, [r] is a trill and [ɹ] is a liquid. However, English doesn’t have a trill, so people transcribing English often use [r] instead of [ɹ] because the former is more familiar - and easier to type. It is considered acceptable to make substitutions like that in cases where readers are unlikely to be confused by the switch. So when I transcribe an English word using [r] instead of [ɹ] I’m not actually trying to make you practice pronouncing trills.

As an aside, the rolled “r” in French is not the same sound as the rolled “r” in Spanish. The French “r” is transcribed [ʀ]. Both sounds are trills, so they share the same manner of articulation; but they have different places of articulation. [ɹ] is alveolar, meaning that to pronounce it the tip of the tongue is positioned on the alveolar ridge, in the same spot it is placed when pronouncing [t]. The sound is produced by vibrating the tongue against the roof of the mouth, which is what makes it a trill. To pronounce [ʀ], the back of the tongue is placed against the uvula and vibrates against that.

To make the alphabet more flexible, IPA employs a number of diacritics. Diacritics are small marks placed above or below a character. In IPA they are used to describe characteristics of a sound that differ slightly from the sound usually represented by a bare character. Last week I talked about consonants that are used as syllable nuclei, which are called syllabic consonants. Syllabicity is considered a phonological feature, so it is indicated with a diacritic. For example, the syllabic version of [n] is [n̩].

Another example of a diacritic is ʰ, which is used to indicate aspiration. Did you know that the letter “p” in English is used to represent two different sounds? The “p” sounds in “pull” and “stop” are slightly different. You can tell if you put your hand in front of your mouth, less than an inch away, and say each word. You will feel a puff of air on your hand when you say the “p” in “pull”; there is a puff when you say “stop” too, but it is not nearly as strong. A sound that makes that strong puff of air is said to be aspirated, and is marked with a diacritic that looks like a superscripted “h”. So the IPA representation for an aspirated “p” is /pʰ/ and an unaspirated “p” is simply /p/.

Even though they are technically different sounds, English speakers treat /p/ and /pʰ/ as being the same. So they are written with the same letter. And in IPA they are usually both transcribed as [p] for simplicity. But on occasion it is important to have the ability to distinguish the two. The difference between sounds that are exactly the same and sounds that are treated as the same by language speakers is a very important consideration in linguistics - and it has to do with the sudden switch from square brackets to slashes surrounding the transcriptions above. I will talk about that in a future article too.