Primer: Pronunciation Spelling and Respelling


Published 09 July 2012 | Last updated 14 Aug 2015

THE IPA is designed by and for academics and predominantly used by them. Editorial professionals and journalists who work outside of linguistics generally don’t use the IPA and indeed avoid it altogether.

This is mainly because most people are normally more comfortable with ‘make-do’ pronunciation spellings such as those commonly found in newspapers and other non-technical writing. Pronunciation spellings make use of well-known words and spelling conventions of the mother tongue and avoid diacritics and non-alphabetic symbols.

For example, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s surname is—

[ˈdʒɪlənhɔːl] in IPA

jĭl′·ən·hôl in old-fashioned dictionary transcription

Jill-in-Hall in a newspaper

Proportionality

Most people don’t need one-to-one mapping between symbols and sounds and, for most general purposes, the IPA just hinders rather than clarifies understanding.

No transcription system is ever accurate. The only way to achieve high precision is to use an audio file. That is the most accurate. Unless there is some overwhelming need to get the pronunciation absolutely precise in printed form, the IPA is overkill.

For a discussion of the pros and cons of the IPA, see Primer: The IPA.

If the need for precision is so overwhelming, why isn’t an audio file being used? Should that give the most precise rendering of the pronunciation? In this day and age of the Internet, why mess around with something invented 124 years ago when sound systems were practically non-existent? It’s a fair point.

Spelling it out

An intuitive alternative to the IPA is to spell the word in a pronounceable way (diarrhoea as dye-REE-a in British English or DYE-uh-REE-a in American English). It’s usually done for foreign words, or when the word’s conventional spelling is irregular (FER-low for furlough), or insufficient to deduce the sound (rao or roh for row).

Sometimes respelling is done deliberately to misspell for humorous effect (wimmin for women) or branding (‘Lite’ foods, Froot Loops), or some kind of sensationalism (the 1972 song Mama Weer All Crazee Now by Slade).

Pronunciation spelling vs. pronunciation respelling

There are two systems of spelling a word in a pronounceable way:—

  1. pronunciation spelling
  2. pronunciation REspelling

A pronunciation spelling is ad hoc spelling done for a specific task at hand and has no standard format. Most are one-time coinages, but some have become standardised or even institutionalised into mainstream English and finding their way into dictionaries:—

  • arentcha (aren’t you, e.g. arentcha sick of it?)
  • dontcha (don’t you, e.g. dontcha hate it?)
  • evah (ever) — especially for facetious usage
  • fark and farkin’ (fuck, fucking: chiefly BrE)
  • fella (fellow)
  • fug and fuggin’ (fuck, fucking) (Norman Mailer, The Naked and The Dead, 1948)
  • gonna and gunna (going to)
  • gawd (god)
  • helluva (hell of a) — now a mainstream word
  • innit (isn’t it: London Cockney)
  • Jeez! (Jesus!) — now a mainstream word for exclamations
  • kinda (kind of)
  • lurve (love)
  • milord (my lord)
  • missus (mistress = Mrs) — now a mainstream word for dialogue use
  • ovah thar (over there) — especially for facetious use in dialogues
  • skool (school)
  • sonofabitch (son of a bitch) — now a mainstream word for all uses
  • sorta (sort of)
  • ’twas (it was) — mainstream and formal word for past 700 years
  • wanna (want to)
  • whodunit or whodunnit (who done it) — both mainstream words for the writing genre
  • wot (what: chiefly BrE)
  • woz (was)
  • wozit (what’s it, ‘thingy’: chiefly BrE)
  • yer (you, you’re, your)

A pronunciation REspelling IS a regular phonetic respelling of a word and DOES have a standard spelling to indicate pronunciation. One of the more famous dictionaries that use pronunciation respelling rather than the IPA is the Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, Third Collegiate Edition (1988).

Easier for most purposes

The point about pronunciation respelling is it’s meant to be easy for native readers to understand (and it is, in fact). These systems have been in use since the days of Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Since respelling primarily uses symbols already known to anyone with minimum literacy in the local language, respelling is more practical to use than the IPA (or the Latin respelling systems with diacritics).

For that very reason, most monolingual English-language dictionaries (usually American ones) adopt a pronunciation respelling system based on the English alphabet. Sometimes diacritics over the vowel and stress marks are used. The dictionaries (British or American English) choose some ‘normal’ pronunciation (e.g. General American) or ‘educated’ speech (Received Pronunciation) for respelling purposes.

Retains the ‘flavour’ of the actual language

The biggest advantage of pronunciation respelling (and also pronunciation spelling) is that it retains the ‘flavour’ of the local English speech. That helps learners to make connections between the spoken and written English experiences.

Another often-forgotten advantage of respelling systems over the IPA:— they contain information about the English writing system. The IPA doesn’t contain that information (because it isn’t even a spelling system). Traditional respelling systems as used in dictionaries help learners generalise about the regularities vs. irregularities of English spelling. The traditional respelling of past tense read is ‘red’ — an intuitive illustration of a common spelling pattern.

As English is a fusional language, English speakers and learners recognise those relationships from their tacit knowledge of the rules of English word formation. They infer intuitively that dog is to dogs as cat is to cats, and dog is to dog catcher as dish is to dishwasher. The speaker understands from the rules that there are specific regularities (or patterns) in the way words are formed from smaller units.

Mapped to the same phonemes

The respelling system works by relying on the reader’s and writer’s encoding be mapped to the same phonemes as each other. (Phonemes are the distinctive units of speech: about 20 to 60 in number for English.) For example, Föhn as ‘fern’ might be adequate for a non-rhotic reader but not a rhotic one.

Linguist frequently point to this aspect as a disadvantage. In fact, it is an advantage more than anything else and not an insurmountable problem in a practical learning setting.

A European learning English, for example, already knows many (if not most) of the English phonemes mainly because all European languages have similar phonemes to each other. The problem, of course, gets sticky when (say) an Asian person is learning English or an Italian learning Japanese.

Practicality and practicalness

For many learners of English, respelling is the only source of pronunciation information for most new words without having to flip pages back and forth furiously. Or just try the Internet.

When the conventional spelling of an English word won’t help us to predict its sound, the pronunciation respelling might in fact show the word to be already known to us orally (nyoo-mohn-ny’ah for pneumonia). In reverse, when the sounds can’t give the spelling, the respelling might help us to find the correct match (latj for latch).

Today, everything has been buggered up because it’s seen as ‘more scientific’ or ‘more accurate’ to use the IPA. It isn’t.

Eye dialect

A word about eye dialect. Although not a phonetic transcription technique, it is nonetheless a way of phonetic representation — only the purpose is different.

Eye dialect (also called eye spelling and literary dialect) is a literary technique — you spell out a character’s dialogue or words in altered ways in an attempt to reproduce or draw attention to his dialect or speech patterns (wanna for want to). It isn’t meant to be an accurate phonetic representation.

Eye dialect is used for visual rather than aural effect in narratives (mostly dialogues). The altered spelling gives the reader a visual cue of the non-standard dialect or idiolect (the ‘language’ unique to an individual). The altered spelling generally retains the original pronunciation (and substantially the conventional spelling too) of the word (‘pleese, mistur’).

  • arsked or aksed (asked)
  • coulda or cuda (could’ve, could have)
  • dafuq (what the fuck, e.g. dafuq I just read?)
  • dunno (don’t know)
  • ermagerd (oh my god)
  • gisa (give us = give me : London Cockney)
  • gisathat (give us that = give me that : London Cockney)
  • guise (guys)
  • hai (hi)
  • hootoadjadat? (who told you that?)
  • Jezoz (Jesus)
  • mistur (mister)
  • namsayin’? (know what I’m saying?)
  • omagord (oh my god)
  • pleez (please)
  • sez (says)
  • shoulda or shuda (should’ve, should have)
  • tsamatta? (what’s the matter?)
  • wiv (with)
  • wuz or woz (was)
  • wat, wot, wut, woot (what)
  • wa – to – ti – fo – fi – si – se – ai – ni – oh (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0)
  • wassup (what’s up)
  • wazzat (what’s that)
  • wazzit or wozit (what is it)
  • widdat? (with that?)
  • whaddaya or whaddya (what are you? or what do you?)
  • whaddyanutz? (what are you, nuts?)
  • whaddayawaan?! (what do you want?!)
  • wozit (whatnot, what’s is that, what is it : UK)
  • yagoddaprollemwiddat? (you got a problem with that?)*

* William Safire, ‘Yagoddaprollemwiddat?The New York Times, 17 Sept 2000

Eye dialect can be done to good effect (as by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain). It can also be a lazy way ‘to shorthand’ a judgment or characterisation — because eye dialect is often used to depict some negative quality about the character for the reader to see. In comics, kids’ speech is often done that way, to show how cutely they’re pronouncing or mispronouncing things.

When de fros’ is on de pun’kin an’ de sno’-flakes in de ar’,
I den begin rejoicin’ — hog-killin’ time is near.

Daniel Webster Davis (1862–1913), “Hog Meat,” in The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldson Johnson, 1922

LOLCAT and Slurvian

In many ways, lolcat (the imagined humorous language of animals) and Slurvian (coined by humourist John Davenport in ‘Slurvian Self-Taught,’ The New Yorker, 1949) are also forms of eye dialect.

Some examples of Slurvian:—

  • alluhyuz or alluhyooz (New York: all of yous)
  • airs (errors)
  • claps (collapse)
  • fiscal (physical)
  • forn (foreign)
  • g’yonit (California: get on it = get moving)
  • gnome (no, ma’am)
  • hits (errors)
  • human bean (human being)
  • lore (lower)
  • myrrh or mere (mirror)
  • paramour (power mower)
  • plight (polite)
  • runs (errors)
  • sport (support)
  • surp (syrup)
  • y’all (you all)
  • Yerp (Europe)
  • Yerpeen (European)

“Slurvian words that, when spelled exactly as pronounced …” are considered ‘pure Slurvian,’ says Davenport:— lore (lower), paramour (power mower), plight (polite).

Most authors are sparing in their use of eye dialect and only use it once in a while just to serve as a visual cue to the reader about a character’s speech.

Dickens was the biggest user of eye dialect, but Mark Twain probably did it better. Other famous writers who used this technique include William Faulkner, Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), Alex Haley, Joel Chandler Harris, Russell Hoban and Robert Ruark. Paul Hull Bowdre, whose surname looks like eye dialect itself, wrote the seminal A Study of Eye Dialect (1964).

*

LIST OF TRADITIONAL RESPELLING SYMBOLS

Below is a generic list of pronunciation respelling symbols commonly used in most monolingual dictionaries for native English speakers. The sounds are based on a compromise, dialect-neutral English pronunciation. Most adhere to the one-symbol-per-sound principle.

Remember, no transcription system is ever accurate and can only approximate the sounds spoken. The most accurate way is to listen to an audio file.

As you can see, symbols without diacritics are very easy to write and type.

Consonants

(IPA in square brackets. BrE = British English. GA = General American)

b [b] — bay, back, baby, job

ch [tʃ] — church, match, nature

d [d] — day, ladder, odd

f [f] — fun, fat, coffee, rough, photo

h [h] — hat, hot, whole, ahead

hw [hw] — when (N BrE), where (GA cf. BrE), which, why (GA cf. BrE) : see also w (below)

j [dʒ] — judge, age, soldier, garbage

(χ) or KH [x] — loch (Scottish) (“hard kh”)

kh [x] — gog (Welsh) (“soft kh”)

hl [ɬ] — llan (Welsh)

g [g] — game, tag, regal, get, giggle, ghost

k [k] — king, key, clock, school

l [l] — light, valley, feel

m [m] — more, hammer, sum

n [n] — nice, know, funny, sun

ng [ŋ] — gnocchi (Italian), ring, anger, thanks, sung

p [p] — pay, pen, copy, happen

r [r] — right, wrong, sorry, arrange, ‘luser

s [s] — simple, soon, cease, sister

hshsia (Chinese), Xerxes (“teethy s”)

sh [ʃ] — ship, sure, dish, ration, national

t [t] — talk, tea, tight, button

th [θ] — thin, thing, thigh, author, path, beneath (“soft th”)

dh [ð] — this, thy, other, smooth (“hard th”)

v [v] — vine, view, heavy, move

w [w] — way, one, queen, when, where (BrE cf. GA), which, why (BrE cf. GA) : see also hw (above)

y [j] — yes, use, beauty, few

z [z] — zoo, zero, music, roses, pleasure (BrE), fusion (GA, science), fission (GA, science), vision (GA), buzz

Vowels

(IPA in square brackets. BrE = British English. GA = General American.)

a [a] — ami (French)

ă or a [æ] — pat, lad, cat, fat, rat, trap, bed

ā or ai [eɪ] — pay, day, face, break

ār or air [eə or ɛər | GA: ɛr] — care, hair, there, square, fair, various

ah or aa [ɑː | GA: ɑ] — father, palm, calm, start

a͡r or aar or ahr [ɑr] — arm

ě or eh [e or ε] — let, head, dress, bed, many

ē or ee or iy [iː | GA: i] — bee, see, fleece, sea, machine, happy, radiate, glorious

ēr or eer or ihr [ɪə or ɪər | GA: ɪr] — pier, near, here, weary

ǐ or i [ɪ] — pit, bid, city, kit, hymn, minute

ī or eye [aɪ] — item, pie, price, high, by, my, try

ǒ or o [ɒ] — odd, orr, lot, pot, not, wash, wasp

ō or oh [oʊ or əʊ] — toe, no, goat, show

aw [ɔː | GA: ɔ] — caught, law, paw, thought, north (GA), war (GA)

awr [ɔr] — north (BrE), war (esp. BrE)

awr or ohr [ɔər | GA: or] — force, wore

oi or oy [ɔɪ] — noise, boy, choice, buoy (BrE ‘bwoy’ cf. GA ‘boo-iy’)

o͝o or uu [ʊ | GA: ᴜ] — took, put, foot, good

oor or uhr [ʊə or ʊər | GA: ᴜr] — tour, poor, jury, cure

o͞o or uw [uː | GA: u] — boot, soon, through, goose, two, blue, group, thank you, influence, situation

ow [aʊ | GA: aᴜ] — out, now, mouth

ǔ or uh [ʌ] — cut, strut, mud, blood, love, run, enough

e͡r or ər or ur [ɝː or ɜr | GA: ɜr] — urge, term, firm, word, heard, learn, bird, nurse, stir, refer

uh [ə] — about, item, gallop, circus, about, common, standard

uh or i (BBC)| GA: ɪ or ə] — rabbit, edible, garbage (‘gahbij’)

uhl [l̩] —middle, metal (“l with under-dot”)

uhn [n̩] — suddenly, cotton (“n with under-dot”)

er or uhr [ər | GA: ɚ] — butter, winner

ū or yo͞o or yuw or ew or iew [juː | GA: ju] — pupil (‘piewpul’)

oe [øː or œ | GA: œ] — feu (French), schön (German), zwölf (German)

ue [yː or ʏ | GA: y] — tu (French), über (German)

awɴ or o(ng) [ɔ̃ | GA: õ] — bon (French)

Stress

Traditional respelling system don’t usually indicate stress or glottal stops; the objective is simply to present an intuitive manner for the reader to deduce pronunciation (rather than giving a precise representation). When respelling does give stress indicators, these are the conventions:—

a or á [ˈa | GA: ˋa] — primary (tonic) stress

(a) or à [ˌa | GA: ˊa] — secondary stress

(a-) [a] — tertiary stress (no indicator)

(glottal stop: not indicated) [ʔ] — department, football

*

ONLINE CONVERTERS/TRANSLATORS

English Phonetic Transcription Converter | Project Modelino

A straightforward free only 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!

_____

WORKS CITED

—. (1988). Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, Third Collegiate Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. 1988.

BOWDRE, Paul Hull. (1964). A Study of Eye Dialect. University of Florida, April 1964. Published online by Kobo Books, Dec. 2009. ISBN 199-000-0297-241. Online version at the Internet Archive. PDF file (6.8 MB) at Kobo Books.

DAVENPORT, John. (1949). Slurvian Self-Taught. The New Yorker. 18 June 1949, page 26.

DAVIS, Daniel Webster. (1922). Hog Meat. The Book of American Negro Poetry, chosen and edited by James Weldson Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1922. Published online 2002 by Bartleby.com.

LEE, R. (2012). Primer: The IPA. Learn English or Starve [website]. 08 July 2012. Last updated 15 July 2015.

MAILER, Norman. (1948). The Naked and The Dead. New York: Rhinehart & Co. 1948.

SAFIRE, William. (2000). Yagoddaprollemwiddat? The New York Times. 17 Sept 2000.

SLADE. (1972). Mama Weer All Crazee Now [song]. Slayed? [album]. UK/USA: Polydor. 1972.

__________

Images: ‘im on ur internets’ via c4c | We shall decide on ur level of fail’ via c4c | ‘Reskyood’ cartoon via The Greenbelt | Fuggedaboutit via About.com.

© Learn English or Starve, 09 July 2012 | Last updated 14 Aug 2015

Cite this page as:

Lee, R.C. (2012). Primer: pronunciation spelling and respelling. Learn English or Starve [website]. 09 July 2012. Last updated 14 Aug 2015. http://learnenglishorstave.wordpress.com/primer-respelling.

Changelog (B12220):
Created and published 09 July 2012
Updated 10 July 2012 (minor typographic fixes)
Updated 21 Nov 2012 (minor amendments, extra text on respelling, typo fixes, link fixes)
Updated 26 May 2014 (link updates)
Updated 14 Aug 2015 (improved reformatting, new links)

9 Responses “Primer: Pronunciation Spelling and Respelling” →
  1. Great work!May God give you thousands of years longevity for worthy works like this.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Words listed under Vowels

    [content deleted by moderators]

    English is taught by letter names but not by it’s [sic] basic sound as done in Gujarati. English words can be spelled but Gujarati words are written as they sound.

    Like

    Reply
    • @iastphonetic: Thank you for leaving a comment. We encourage and welcome all types of comments. However, the format of your comment (copypasting large tracts of words and transliterations) does not meet the requirements of commenting for this blog.

      Like

  3. Reply
    • @iastphonetic: Thank you for the link. We regret to say it doesn’t relate directly to the matter of this article, which isn’t about alternative spellings to supplant existing ones but using respellings to show the sounds of the words to aid pronunciation.

      Like

  4. Based on sounds,here I don’t agree with IPA notations of these words .

    ultra Alaska acacia ahimsa alumina
    ayurveda agenda anemia aurora ammonia America umbrella

    IPA:
    ˈəltrə əˈlæskə əˈkeɪʃə əˈhɪmsɑ, əˈhɪŋsɑ əˈluːmənə
    ˈɑ yərˌveɪ də, əˈdʒendə əˈniːmiːə əˈrɔrə əˈmoʊnjə
    əˈmerəkə ˌəmˈbrelə

    Proffered IPA:
    ˈəltrɑ əˈlæskɑ əˈkeɪʃɑ əˈhɪm sɑ, əˈhɪŋ sɑ əˈluːmənɑ
    ˈɑ yərˌveɪ dɑ, əˈdʒendɑ əˈniːmiːɑ əˈrɔrɑ əˈmoʊnjɑ
    əˈmerəkɑ ˌəmˈbrelɑ

    Like

    Reply
    • @iastphonetic: The IPA for the sounds [given in the article] are correct pronunciations for the general run of native English speakers. Your IPA versions have endings that are overly strong in vowels — we think yours are trying to match the regular word spellings rather than the spoken sounds.

      Like

  5. Do You think that both schwas in each word sound same in speech?
    In audio, I hear əˈmerikə as əˈmerikɑ and əltrə as əltrɑ.

    Like

    Reply
    • They’re slightly different in actual native English speech (both American and British) but the pronunciation transcription is good enough to “əˈmerikə” and “əltrə.”

      Let’s not get too worked up about absolute mapping. This article’s main aim is about the availability of alternatives to the IPA, however.

      Like

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