Published 08 July 2012 (updated 22 Sept 2013)
“If we’re no good spelling [at] things phonetically with our
regular alphabet, then symbols are not going to
help us much at the end of the day.”
— A linguist friend on the deficiencies of relying on symbols for pronunciation
“My students can’t make the connection between the normal
written word and pronunciation, and this IPA is making
that connection even more distant.”
— A teacher of English and Chinese in Hong Kong, ca. 2007,
about her students being unable to spell conventionally (or
to pronounce a conventionally spelled word) because of
having learnt the IPA as a formal part of the curriculum
THE International Phonetic Alphabet (‘IPA’ for short) is the standardised system of phonetic notation to represent the sounds of the oral language for linguistic analysis. In short, it is a way of making speech ‘visible.’
WHAT IS IT?
The IPA was originally created in 1888 by British English language teachers as a tool of foreign-language pedagogy. Since then, the IPA has absorbed efforts from American and European linguists and phoneticians so that it is currently the main ‘linguistic alphabet’ seen in the field of phonetics.
The 1888-vintage Core IPA is for transcribing phonemes, intonation, word separations, syllables, etc — that is, the qualities of speech that are distinctive only in the oral language.
IPA Extensions are further symbols created in 1990–94 specifically for transcribing disordered speech plus other additional qualities of speech such as lisping, cleft palate sounds, teeth-gnashing, hushing, lipsmacking, etc.
The IPA is not the only way to put spoken sounds into written or printed form. Lexicographers for centuries have relied on respelling symbols to textualise spoken sounds.
SEE: Generic list and discussion of traditional respelling symbols
The IPA is not a universally used or accepted system. Some languages (most notably Hebrew but also Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, etc) have their own built-in phonetic transcription features to represent native and foreign sounds.
WHAT IS (NOT) ITS PURPOSE?
The purpose of the IPA is for pedagogy. Its objective is linguistic analysis. Its application is oral language. In short, the IPA is a pedagogical tool for the linguistic analysis of oral languages.
Therein lies the key limitation of the IPA — it is not a pronunciation learning aid, as it has always been supposed or made out to be.
The IPA cannot act as a respelling system in the English language because it uses various symbols (ð, θ, etc) that are not part of the English spelling system.
The IPA is not a respelling system in other languages either, because the other IPA versions also use symbols that are not part of the spelling/pronunciation traditions of those other languages.
In short, the IPA as a whole is not a respelling system in any language.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
IPA symbols are based chiefly on the Latin alphabet, along with any limitations from that.
Below is a generic IPA set for English (Received Pronunciation and similar accents):—
Depending on the precision required (and also on the language for use in), sounds are variously notated by—
- either a single letter [t]
- or letter + diacritics — small symbols placed around letters [t̺ʰ]
- or non-alphabetic symbols — [ʃ] for sh, [ð] for th
Owing to copyright reasons, the official IPA chart is available only off-site:—
The International Phonetic Alphabet (revised to 2005)
© 2005 The International Phonetic Association
Wikipedia has an even fuller version of the IPA (rearranged from the official IPA chart for clarity) that includes labiodental flap and other ad hoc symbols found in the phonetics/linguistics literature.
Expanded Wikipedia version of the official IPA
WHO USES IT?
The IPA is designed for and predominantly used by academics — linguists (as in linguistics), speech pathologists, lexicographers, translators and creators of ‘constructed’ languages. It is also used by (and taught to) foreign-language students, teachers, and classical singers and actors.
Those who generally don’t use the IPA are anyone who work outside of linguistically related fields (including journalists and most other editorial professionals) — indeed, most tend to avoid it altogether. This is mainly because most people are normally more comfortable with ‘make-do’ pronunciation respelling.
Respelling — commonly found in newspapers and other non-technical writings — makes use of familiar words and spellings of the mother tongue in daily use and avoid uncommon symbols or diacritics. For instance, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s surname is [ˈdʒɪlənhɔːl] in IPA — but jĭl′·ən·hôl in old-fashioned dictionary respelling and Jill-in-hall in a newspaper.
Most people need no one-to-one mapping between symbols and sounds. For most general purposes, the IPA just hinders rather than clarifies understanding.
Learn English or Starve uses both phonetic respelling and IPA whenever possible. Failing that, we just make do with newspaper-style Jill-in-Hall pronunciation respelling because, honestly speaking, most people find that is good enough.
This is a blog — not a flippin’ linguistics textbook or dictionary. Wake up!
PROBLEMS WITH THE IPA
The IPA clearly has its worth in the field of linguistic analysis. However, it suffers from eight major defects as a tool for learning pronunciation.
The No. 1 biggest practical problem with the IPA is that it’s gibberish for 90% of everybody. Most people worldwide won’t have had the kind of schooling that called for the use of the IPA.
Indeed, the IPA is even less well known than mathematical notation — roundly hated yet dutifully internalised by practically everybody throughout our schooldays (and trying to ‘un-memorise’ it ever since).
“Go learn phonics/phonetics! IPA is accurate!” is a common refrain heard from linguists, translators and anyone else who uses IPA.
That may be true enough. But equally, we cannot force others to go off and learn phonics/phonetics/IPA just to fit in with our individual intellectual preferences simply because we’re too stingy and too petty to respell things for non-IPA readers.
It’s a very irresponsible, overweening attitude to take.
2. Extra learning fodder
The No. 2 biggest practical problem (especially from the learner’s point of view) is that the IPA just adds an extra layer of learning fodder on top of the hardship of vocabulary, grammar and usage idiosyncrasies that learners already have to wrestle with. 
 Irene Gaskins, ‘Procedures for word learning: making discoveries about words,’ in The Reading Teacher, 1996/97, volume 50, number 4, pages 312–327.
The trend worldwide since the 1980s has been to start teaching the IPA to young schoolchildren around senior primary or junior secondary levels.
The teaching of the IPA at this level of schooling is much more widespread in the East than in the West.
In many Asian countries, many schoolchildren as young as single-digit years are in reality not learning the language itself by virtue of being routinely forced to spend (waste?) their precious youth away on memorising ‘incidentals’ the likes of the IPA. 
Additionally, the kids have their learning efforts distracted  because scholastic performance is often partly graded on their ability to regurgitate the IPA in correct format. 
 Werner Kartis, Die Ergonomie die Lehre [The Ergonomics of Teaching] (Augsburg, Germany: Königsmacher Druckpresse-Verlag GmbH, 2003), in original German.
 J.D. Karpicke, D.P. McCabe and H.L. Roediger III, ‘False memories are not surprising: The subjective experience of an associative memory illusion,’ in Journal of Memory and Language, 2008, volume 58, pages 1065–1079.
Since the kids’ learning efforts are now taken up with memorising the IPA, they no longer have the chance to retrieve and reconstruct knowledge about the actual language itself.  In short, kids now learn the curricular requirements of the curriculum rather than the actual subject matter. 
 Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Jannell R. Blunt, ‘Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping,’ in Science, 2011, issue 331, pages 772–775.
 Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Jannell R. Blunt, ‘Response to comment on “Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping”,’ in Science, 2011, issue 334, page 453.
 Thomas J. Hanson, ‘Latest study validates testing, forced retrieval,’ Open Education, 25 Jan 2011.
Education authorities worldwide promote dozens of reasons for requiring young schoolchildren to learn the IPA. There is much in the literature of education and sociolinguistics to explain this need, but we need not go into them here.
Suffice it to say, the time, effort and heartache of the schoolchildren being put to learning the IPA could more profitably be put to their learning other subjects such as physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, geography, home economics — or plain ole’ physical education.
3. Ultimate purpose: not for pronunciation
The purpose of the IPA is to show the sounds in accurate form for pronunciation.
Back to basics now.
A purpose contains one or several objectives under it.
With chemical notation, the purpose is for analysing and designing chemical reactions in a short way. The objective is to provide a standardised system for expressing the components of chemical substances and the sequences of a chemical reaction.
Chemical notation itself doesn’t help in how the chemical reaction is analysed or designed.
With mathematical notation, the purpose is for analysing and determining numbers and abstract functions in a short way. The objectives are to show the nature of mathematical functions in question and to indicate the operating priorities in dealing with those functions.
Mathematical notation itself isn’t supposed to aid how the mathematical operations are to be done.
The purpose of the IPA is for linguistic analysis. The objective of the IPA is to provide a system for rendering sounds into printed form suitable for said analytical work.
In other words, it is correct to say the IPA is a system to represent the sounds of the oral language — but incorrect and erroneous to assert that the IPA is a phonetic system to aid pronunciation.
Chemistry is chemistry; linguistics is decidedly not chemistry.
It is cynical (but also rather accurate) to say that it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to see through the smokescreen that plenty of people take to the IPA as their first port of call even for the most untechnical of purposes because it lends an air of technicality and knowledgeability.
4. Notation overkill
The IPA has a massive number of usage rules — and it’s a problem even for linguists themselves.
At the most basic level, it recommends:—
- square brackets for straightforward phonetic transcription (pretzel as [ˈpʰɹ̥ʷɛʔt.sɫ̩])
- forward slashes denote only phonological contrasts (/ˈprɛt.sl̩/ or /ˈpret.səl/)
- pipes (or vertical bars) for morphological analysis (|pets| and |beds| vs. |petz| and |bedz|)
- angle brackets indicate when native orthography/spelling is being used (<jet> is to be read as jet and not yet)
To compound the mess, the IPA has differential use of notations for broad transcriptions (giving a basic idea of the sounds) and narrow transcriptions (giving precise details of the sounds) — for the purposes of linguistic analysis, not for pronunciation.
For example, pretzel could be /ˈprɛt.sl̩/ or /ˈpret.səl/. A broad transcription claims there is only one vowel, whereas a narrow transcription claims there are two vowels — and there are half a dozen ideas in linguistics literature as to what this may be.
A further disadvantage is that narrow transcription involves a larger number of symbols that may be unfamiliar even to specialists, e.g. [ˈpʰɹ̥ʷɛʔt.sɫ̩].
5. Notation inconsistency
Never the same notation between any two linguist or online converter. This doesn’t happen in notations used in chemistry, physics and mathematics — or even in biology. Even photographers are more consistent in using photographic notations.
6. No spelling aid
The IPA doesn’t illuminate the English writing system — nor the writing system of any other language, for that matter.
People complain that spelling ability has gone to the dogs nowadays — that we couldn’t spell properly (or at all) anymore because of the Internet, email, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, the girl next door, the boy down the street, inconsiderate attitude, lethargic outlook to life — 101 other sweeping generalisations that are mostly associated with (and identifiable to) grammar nazis.
It is a bit churlish to talk about the defects of the IPA as a spelling aid, considering that it was ultimately designed to be a transcription system for sounds of the oral language for linguistic analysis.
For any average learner of English, the IPA notations don’t guide the reader to infer English spelling patterns. It clearly can’t — the IPA (like all other phonetic transcription systems) is a transcription system. Therefore it represents phonemes differently from the way the phonemes are normally spelled in.
A disturbing pattern
If you’ve ever had a hard look at this spelling business (even to the point of carrying out a fairly serious survey of spelling ability — as Learn English or Starve had done), you’ll notice a disturbing pattern.
Before World War Two, most people even in the industrialised countries were only moderately educated because of the general socioeconomic conditions of the time.
Few would dispute this. Whatever little schooling that most First World people had then (illiterates excepted as they’re blameless), most could nonetheless spell and punctuate reasonably well.
Kids in those olden and golden days were simply told to memorise the spelling and say the sound — just two things to carry out.
If they could manage a third thing as well — to remember the word meanings — good for them.
Consider what those days were like. People read the newspaper for news (or had it read to them). They listened to the ‘wireless’ (radio) for entertainment, or if the King, President or Chancellor had something really terrible to announce. The B-movies they watched were nearly always preceded by Pathé or RKO newsreel footage plastered with headline words flashing constantly before their eyeballs. If someone didn’t know a word, be sure somebody in the next seat would say the word to him. People were in constant exposure to conventional word spellings.
Ever since the IPA started being introduced in the late 1980s or mid-1990s into the school curriculum worldwide as a formal teaching and study component, that has coincided with the downslide in general spelling ability. It also coincided with the advent of the USENET (ancestor of the Internet) — which is why it’s been so easy for many to blame it on the Internet instead.
The Chinese are overall good spellers, and practically no one would dispute this. However, in Hong Kong (the city I now live in), spelling is terrible. I have seen the IPA ability of students gone up since the mid-1990s, while their ability to spell correctly gone straight down the drain. Bear in mind Hong Kong is a place with at least 150 years of history of teaching, learning and using English on a daily, culturally ingrained basis.
I started noticing the change around 1996/97, a time when 90% of nobody had Internet, email or instant messaging — so we can’t blame bad or lazy spelling habits on those things. In those days too, mobile phones (‘portable phones’ or ‘handyphone’) had no texting function — so we can’t blame bad or lazy spelling on that either.
What’s left? That was the time when the IPA was put into the curriculum in Hong Kong, as did in many other places. Draw your own conclusions.
While the IPA appears in most English-language dictionaries, it is not universally used in dictionaries of other languages.
A prime example of non-use of IPA are Hebrew dictionaries. Hebrew has a highly sophisticated, built-in transcription system for foreign words.
Similarly, monolingual Russian dictionaries respell foreign words using Russian Cyrillic for the sounds.
Czech dictionaries tend to use the IPA only for sounds absent in the Czech language.
Japanese, Korean and Indian dictionaries are three neat Asian demonstrations of the non-use of IPA.
Monolingual Japanese dictionaries of foreign languages (English included) use Katagana (カタカナor 片仮名) and Hiragana (平仮名 ‘cursive syllabary’) characters to represent the foreign words and pronunciation. Similarly, the Korean Hangul alphabet has its own phonetic extensions.
In India, many bilingual English dictionaries provide pronunciation respelling in Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil and other local languages.
Here is one Irish polyglot’s opinion on the use of bilingual dictionaries:—
“Their purpose of a dictionary for anyone but tourists should always be to help you learn a language, rather than to replace the learning process with instant translations. It’s why I opt to use monolingual dictionaries as soon as possible…”— Brendan ‘Benny’ Lewis in Fluent in Three Months | Link
Since 90% of the world’s bilingual dictionaries use the IPA — conversely, 90% of monolingual dictionaries don’t use it — it then follows that bilingual dictionaries are not optimal aids for language learning. Being that bilingual dictionaries wholly rely on the IPA, the chain of logic then has to be that the IPA is most probably also not an optimal aid for that learning.
The quintessential linguist in some of us can get overly intellectual and enter into the realm of academic ‘soloing techniques’ (see Glossary) after extended linguistic combat duty. Over-intellectualisation is to the linguist as firepower is to the soldier.
We reproduce John Wells’ article (in full, in case it disappears from the Internet) that shows how the overuse of IPA can cause some people to ‘make things fit’:—
(Our emphasis in boldfaced words)
An impossible sound
In the 1949 edition of “The Principles of the International Phonetic Association” one of the IPA symbols listed is ʞ, defined as standing for a velar click.
Correct, though I suspect the date is wrong. In fact ʞ had disappeared from the IPA Chart by 1951, though not from the Principles booklet.
And why was this symbol dropped? One answer is that no language had been found to have the velar click as one of its sounds. But the real reason is that a velar click is anatomically impossible.
By the 1960s we understood non-pulmonic airstreams better than our predecessors did. We knew that clicks are made with an ingressive velaric airstream mechanism, involving a closure between the back of the tongue and the velum (as in k). Since this closure is used to separate off the mouth cavity from the pharynx ready for initiation of the air flow, it cannot simultaneously be used for a velar velaric articulation. As well as the velar closure, clicks must have some closure forward of the velar place, involving therefore the front/blade/tip/side of the tongue or the lips. Muscular expansion of the cavity between the two closures provides the suction needed to make a click on release.
What you can have simultaneously with a click is a velar articulation involving a non-velaric airstream mechanism, typically a pulmonic one. That is why clicks can be nasal (simultaneous ŋ rather than k), voiced (simultaneous ɡ), etc. Indeed, one way of checking that a sound is a click is to see whether you can do ŋ simultaneously with it: if you can, it’s a click.
As [Geoffrey] Pullum and [William] Ladusaw put it in their discussion of ʞ (Phonetic Symbol Guide, University of Chicago Press, 19962, p. 101),
“The IPA’s recommendation was simply a mistake, and the symbol could never be validly used. It was dropped from the IPA chart with the 1979 revision.”
Ladefoged’s website has a ciné x-ray of a real click, a dental one.
(John Wells, An Impossible Sound, John Wells’ phonetic blog, 27 Feb 2008 | Link)
PROBLEMS WITH THE IPA, PART II
The IPA is designed to be a phonetic transcription that attempts to objectively capture the actual pronunciation of a word.
Our official position is that no goddamn transcription system can do that.
The only way to do that is to give them an audio file. That is the most accurate. Where is your god now?
We can get an immediate sense of relative obviousness of various transcription/respelling systems to help infer pronunciation with the following text conversions:—
Our official position is that no goddamn transcription system can do that. The only way to do that is to give them an audio file. That is the most accurate. Where is your god now?
In dictionary respelling:
Ow’r efish’el pezishen iz thet no goddam tran-skrip’shen sis’tem ken doo that. The on’le wai to doo that iz to giv them an o’de-0 fIl. That iz the most ak’yoor-it. Hwer iz yor god now?
In newspaper respelling:
Our off-fishull po-sishun is that no god-dam tran-scrip-shun sistem ken do that. The ownlee way to do that is to give them an aw-dio file. That is the most ack-you-ret. Where is yor god now?
R offishul posishun iz dat no ceilin cat F&^% tranzkripshun sistam kan do dat. Teh only wai 2 do dat iz 2 giv dem an audio file. Dat iz teh most akrit. Wer iz ur ceilin cat nao?
ɑr əˈfɪʃəl pəˈzɪʃən ˈɪz ˈðæt ˈnoʊ ˈgɑd ˈdæm fəˈnetɪk trænˈskrɪpʃən ˈsɪstəm kən ˈduː ˈðæt. ðiː ˈoʊnliː ˈweɪ tə ˈduː ˈðæt ˈɪz tə ˈgɪv (ð)əm ən ˈɔdiːˌoʊ fəˈleɪ. ˈðæt ˈɪz ðə ˈmoʊst ˈækjərət. ˈwer ˈɪz jər ˈgɑd ˈnæʊ?
See the point now?
Even lolcat is easier for getting at the pronunciation! Indeed, lolcat akrit is very, very close to accurate in the upper-class segment of Received Pronunciation.
For goodness’ sake, unless there is some overwhelming need to get the pronunciation absolutely precise in printed form, the IPA is overkill.
And if the need is so overwhelming, why aren’t you using an audio file? Shouldn’t that give the most precise rendering of the pronunciation? In this day and age of the Internet, why mess around with something invented more than 120 years ago when audio systems were practically non-existent?
Ultimately, despite its name, the IPA is not really a phonetic alphabet but an alphabet-looking notation system used for linguistic analysis rather than for helping with pronunciation.
English Phonetic Transcription Converter | Project Modelino
A straightforward free online converter from normal English into generic IPA. Maximum 700 words for unregistered (guest) users.
PhoTransEdit – English Phonetic Transcription Editor | PhoTransEdit.com
Another free online converter that outputs a choice of Received Pronunciation (BrE) or General American (AmE) transcription. Max. 300 characters (not words).
Learn to speak lolcat: the lolcat translator | speaklolcat.com
Learn to speak lolcat — the language of all animals, not just cats, dogs, kittens and puppies. Communicate with your pet dog or cat. Docta dolittle eat ur hart out!
GASKINS, Irene (1996). Procedures for word learning: making discoveries about words. Reading Teacher. 1996/97. Volume 50, number 4, pages 312–327. USA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ISSN 1936-2714.
HANSON, Thomas J. (2011). Latest study validates testing, forced retrieval. Open Education. 25 Jan 2011. http://www.openeducation.net/2011/01/25/latest-study-validates-testing-forced-retrieval-and-sqrrr/.
IPA (2005). The International Phonetic Alphabet (revised to 2005). The International Phonetic Association. 2005. http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html.
KARPICKE, Jeffrey D., and Jannell R. BLUNT (2011a). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science. 2001. Issue 331, pages 772–775. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF file from http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2011_Karpicke_Blunt_Science.pdf]
KARPICKE, Jeffrey D., and Jannell R. BLUNT (2011b). Response to comment on ‘Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping’. Science. 2011. Issue 334, page 453. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF file from http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2011_Karpicke_Blunt_ScienceResponse.pdf]
KARPICKE, J.D, D.P. McCABE and H.L. ROEDIGER III (2008). False memories are not surprising: The subjective experience of an associative memory illusion. Journal of Memory and Language. 2008. Volume 58, pages 1065–1079. Elsevier Inc.
KARTIS, Werner (2003). Die Ergonomie die Lehre [The Ergonomic of Teaching]. In original German. Augsburg, Germany: Königsmacher Druckpresse-Verlag GmbH. 2003.
LEWIS, Brendan (undated). Best free online language-specific monolingual and bilingual dictionaries [undated webpage]. Fluent in Three Months [website]. http://www.fluentin3months.com/free-dictionaries/.
WELLS, John (2008). An Impossible Sound. John Well’s phonetic blog. 27 Feb 2008. http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/blog0802b.htm.
WIKIPEDIA (2005). IPA chart 2005. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IPA_chart_2005.png.
Citation for this page:—
Lee, R.C. (2012). IPA symbols. Learn English or Starve [website]. 08 July 2012. Last updated 22 Sept 2013. Author’s document ID B12219. http://learnenglishorstarve.wordpress.com/ipa/.
© Learn English or Starve, 2012. Published 08 July 2012. Updated 22 Sept 2013.
Images: Generic IPA set via UCL ♦ Human sound articulators via SIL ♦ World Gibberish Map via The Age (Australia) ♦ Forced via EDU in Review ♦ Microphone via c4c ♦ Music notation via 123rf.com ♦ ‘We shall decide on ur level of fail’ via c4c ♦ Click via VFM Leonardo.
Created and published 08 July 2012, UTC 14:28
Updated 10 July 2012 (minor amendments, fixes links)
Updated 21 Nov 2012 (minor amendments, formatting fixes)
Updated 13 June 2013 (typo fixes, link updates)
Updated 22 Sept 2013 (amendments for clarity)