08 July 2012 | Last updated 15 July 2015
“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’) 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?
- What is its purpose — and isn’t?
- What does it look like?
- Who uses it?
- Our policy
- Problems with the IPA
- Problems with the IPA, Part II
- Online converters and translators
- Works cited
- Citing this page
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 ITS PURPOSE — AND ISN’T?
The purpose of the IPA is for pedagogy.
The objective is linguistic analysis.
Its application is oral language.
In short, the IPA is a pedagogical tool for the linguistic analysis of oral forms of the language.
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 is sometimes misapplied as a respelling system to press it into service as a pronunciation aid. The IPA cannot be used as such because—
— its application is for oral forms of the language and not written forms
— it uses various symbols that are not part of the English spelling system (ð, θ, etc)
— other IPA versions for other languages also use symbols that are not part of the spelling or 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?
The IPA is based chiefly on the Latin alphabet, therefore inheriting any limitations from that.
Below is a generic IPA set for English (Received Pronunciation and similar accents):—
A generic IPA set (via UCL)
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
The human sound articulators (via SIL)
Wikipedia has an even fuller version of the IPA (rearranging the official IPA chart for clarity). It 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) and linguistically related workers such as 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.
The IPA is not generally used by anyone who work outside of linguistically related fields. This includes journalists and most other editorial professionals — indeed most tend to avoid the IPA 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 (Gaskins 1996).
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 (Kartis 2003).
Additionally, the kids have their learning efforts distracted (Karpicke et al. 2008) because scholastic performance is often partly graded on their ability to regurgitate the IPA in correct format (Kartis 2003, Karpicke et al. 2008).
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 (Karpicke & Blunt 2011a, 2011b). In short, kids now learn the curricular requirements of the curriculum rather than the actual subject matter (Hanson 2011).
Education authorities worldwide produce dozens of reasons to promote the requirement for 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 that the children’s time, effort and heartache being put into learning the IPA could more profitably be put to learning the actual language itself or any other subject, such as physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, geography, home economics — or indeed 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 OBJECTIVE 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.
With IPA, the purpose 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 rather accurate) to say 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 [pret.səl])
- forward slashes or strokes denote only phonological contrasts (/ˈprɛt.sl̩/ or /ˈpret.səl/)
- pipes (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 and narrow transcriptions — for the purposes of linguistic analysis, not for pronunciation. ‘Broad’ transcriptions give a basic idea of the sounds, and ‘narrow’ transcriptions give precise details of the sounds.
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. Indeed the great mass of people born between the aftermath of the First World War and the end of the Depression (i.e. from 1918 to ca. 1933 but effectively to 1945) had very little formal education.
Few would dispute this. Whatever little schooling most people in the First World then had, most could nonetheless spell and punctuate reasonably well. (Except illiterates, who are blameless.)
Consider what those days were like.
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.
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 for two shillings sixpence or something 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.
Consider the modern experience.
Ever since the late 1980s to mid-1990s when the IPA started to be introduced into the school curriculum worldwide as a formal teaching and study component, that has coincided with the downward slide 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 ‘spelling malfunction’ on the Internet instead.
(We should know that the USENET couldn’t have been responsible because USENET access was fairly specialised at the time, which meant that only adults had access.)
The Chinese are overall good spellers and practically no one would dispute this. However, spelling is terrible in Hong Kong (the city I now live in). I have seen the IPA ability of students gone up since the mid-1990s but simultaneously correct spelling ability gone straight down the drain. Bear in mind that Hong Kong is a place with over 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 cannot objectively blame bad or lazy spelling habits on those things. Mobile phones (‘portable phones or ‘handy’) had no texting function then — we can’t blame bad or lazy spelling on that either.
So what’s left?
That was the time when the IPA was put into action in the Hong Kong curriculum (as did in many other places). Draw your conclusions.
The IPA is not universally adopted in dictionaries of other languages even though it appears in most English-language dictionaries.
A prime example of non-use of IPA is the Hebrew dictionary. Hebrew has a highly sophisticated, built-in transcription system for foreign words. (It is so sophisticated that it can transcript precisely even Cantonese tones.)
Similarly, the monolingual dictionaries of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and the other ‘Cyrillic’ languages use Cyrillic letters to respell foreign words and pronunciation — in the same we respell Yuri Konstantin for Юрий Константин or yazyk pisatelya for язык писателя (‘language writer’), and they respell Америка for America or Бриттен (‘britten’) to pronounce Britain.
Czech, Romanian and Albanian dictionaries use IPA only for sounds absent in their languages.
The Japanese, Korean and Indian dictionaries are three neat Asian demonstrations of no IPA use.
Monolingual Japanese dictionaries of foreign languages (English included) use characters of Katakana (カタカナor 片仮名 ‘fragmentary syllabary’) and Hiragana (平仮名 ‘cursive syllabary’) to represent foreign words and pronunciation (モーニング mōningu, morning) — or to develop pseudo-foreign Japanese phrases, e.g. 朝ホル asahoru, asshole, or ファック fakku, fuck). 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 Indian languages.
Here is a world-famous polyglot’s opinion on the use of bilingual dictionaries:—
“Their [sic] 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 also most probably 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 what firepower is to the soldier.
We reproduce John Wells’ brilliant 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)
(Image above via VFM Leonardo)
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?
From the text conversions below, we get an immediate sense of the relative ‘obviousness’ of the various transcriptions and respelling system to help a person infer pronunciation.
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 orf-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 awe-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.
To be blunt, unless there is some overwhelming need to get the pronunciation absolutely precise in printed form, the IPA is overkill.
And since 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 like the IPA invented more than 120 years when audio systems were non-existent?
And as a linguist, haven’t you been trained to pronounce sounds in a precise manner that could be used in an audio file that every computer can now produce?
Ultimately, despite its name, the IPA is not really a phonetic alphabet. It is simply an alphabet-looking notation system 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.
IPA (2005). The International Phonetic Alphabet (revised to 2005). London: The International Phonetic Association. 2005.
KARPICKE, Jeffrey D., and Jannell R. BLUNT. (2011a). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science. 2011. Issue 331, pages 772–775. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. [PDF file link here]
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 link here]
KARPICKE, Jeffrey D., D.P. McCABE and H.L. ROEDIGER. (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 Ergonomics of Teaching]. Augsburg, Germany: Königsmacher Druckpresse-Verlag GmbH. 2003. [In original German]
LEWIS, Brendan. (Undated). Best free online language-specific monolingual and bilingual dictionaries [undated webpage]. Fluent in Three Months [website].
WELLS, John. (2008). An Impossible Sound. John Well’s phonetic blog. 27 Feb 2008.
WIKIPEDIA. (2005). IPA chart 2005. Wikipedia.
Images: Generic IPA set via UCL | The human sound articulators via SIL | Global language map by WIlcox via The Age (Australia) | ‘Forced’ via EDU Review | Microphone graphic via c4c | Musical notation via 123rf.com | ‘We shall decide’ cats via c4c | Man and dictionaries via fluentin3months | Click via VFM Leonardo.
© Learn English or Starve, 08 July 2012. Last updated 14 Aug 2015.
Cite this page as:—
Lee, R.C. (2012). IPA symbols. Learn English or Starve [website]. 08 July 2012. Last updated 14 Aug 2015. Author’s document ID B12219. https://learnenglishorstarve.wordpress.com/primer-ipa/.
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)
Updated 27 May 2014 (link updates, amended dictionary section, added content header)
Updated 13 July 2015 (link updates)
Updated 14 Aug 2015 (link updates, minor reformatting)