The International Phonetic Alphabet


In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating knowledge of phonetics similarly is not quite so justifiable.

People still talk about speech sounds in the vaguest of impressionistic and metaphorical terms: “hard” and “soft” consonants; “broad” or “strangulated” vowels; “guttural” or “harsh” sounds; “sing-song” intonation; “nasal” or “whiny” voice quality. Actors talk about achieving certain effects by making the voice come from high up in the skull, or deep in the stomach, or other anatomical impossibilities. You don’t (usually) get any phonetics in high school.

Nonetheless, over the past few decades things have improved: The IPA is used in the pronunciation guides in some dictionaries, and it is standard in Wikipedia for indicating the pronunciation of place names, personal names, and rare words.

Developing a proper grasp of the IPA involves learning about 100 letters (many already familiar) plus another 50 modifying signs. They are not chosen arbitrarily, but are based on sophisticated scientific understanding of speech sounds plus some good political common sense. The original developers were a group of British, French, German, and Danish phoneticians just over a hundred years ago. They shared an alphabet already: the one that originally evolved for Latin. So wherever there was general agreement on a certain letter representing a certain sound, it would be picked to represent that sound in the IPA. If there was no agreement across Western European languages, some compromise would be selected that drew at least some support from some of them. When Latin letters ran out, there were Greek ones to adopt, or entirely novel symbols could be devised.

What was nonnegotiable was the principle that each letter of the IPA would represent just one sound, and no sound would be represented by more than one letter. If k rather than c was picked for the initial sound of words like cat, kitten, chorus, and khaki, it would be always and only used for that purpose (leaving c free to represent a different sound).

Studying the full array of symbols (see the definitive one-page copyright-free chart here) reveals that for almost any point in the mouth or throat where an obstruction or radical restriction of the airflow from the lungs can be made by lips or teeth or tongue or pharynx, such a restriction will be used to produce at least some consonants: sounds produced either by complete occlusion of the airflow or by narrowing or interrupting the channel to produce hissing, buzzing, scraping, trilling, rattling, or clicking.

And for every reasonable position in which you can hold the tongue and lips and cheeks while permitting unimpeded airflow, there is a vowel sound employing that oral posture.

As you learn the framework that defines consonantal and vocalic sounds, and hear about some examples of languages using them, you discover that some languages employ nearly 100 consonants while others have only a modest half-dozen. Various languages of the Caucasus Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and the Kalahari Desert have huge arrays of consonants, while many languages of the Pacific islands and some in the Amazon basin have only a very few. Some languages have rich collections of vowels (English has about 20 if you include the diphthongs and triphthongs), while others get by with three or even just two linguistically distinct vowels.

Other modifications can be overlaid either on consonants or on vowels: tone variations, length distinctions, lip rounding, opening the nasal cavity, tensing the pharynx, half-closing the larynx (making creaky voice or “vocal fry”), and other effects. Human speech employs an extraordinary profusion of sounds.

I have frequently taught a one-quarter course on elementary phonetics that covers the IPA, its classificatory framework, producing and distinguishing speech sounds, and a small amount of background vocal-tract anatomy and acoustic physics. It is a beautiful but also practically valuable introduction to human diversity. At the end of a comparative-social-anthropology course you appreciate that cultures differ quite a lot but you don’t necessarily have a new practically applicable skill; but at the end of a phonetics course you can write down any speech you hear, whether in a language you’d like to learn or one that you know nothing about, and do it in an unambiguous representation that any phonetician could interpret. Developing good pronunciation of foreign languages becomes vastly easier. Few interesting and enjoyable college courses impart a skill so practically valuable.

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