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The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

The IPA is used to notate the sounds of human languages, and contains over a hundred letter-like symbols, each of which represents a distinct phoneme (a minimal linguistic sound unit, such as a pure vowel or single consonant). The IPA was developed in the late 1800s, and by 1888 had developed into a unified system in which sounds were represented by the same symbols regardless of the language being transcribed. Researchers could now begin to transcribe Russian, French, English, or any other language with a coherent set of symbols which they knew conveyed the same meaning to any reader familiar with IPA conventions.

There have been a number of revisions of the IPA in the twentieth century, and a set of Extensions was also added in 1990, mainly to cover the transcription needs of those studying disordered speech. The Extension's symbols indicate such phenomena as stuttering, slurring, and whispering.

The IPA for English Students

The following is a brief introduction to the IPA, intended mainly for students of English language and literature who will use it only rarely to discuss the use of sounds in the texts they are analysing or to consider historical sound changes in the English language. It presents the symbols used to represent the main accents of English, and their approximate values. If you want more information, you will find many more in-depth guides to the IPA online and in print. See below for a bibliography and some suggested links.

Once you're feeling confident with the IPA, why not try the IPA Famous First Lines Quiz?

Conventions

There are a number of conventions which you should know about when you're using the IPA. Square brackets are employed to enclose phonetic transcriptions: [ʍɒt]. Slashes, when they enclose a single symbol, represent a phoneme; /m/ is the sound represented by the symbol "m" in IPA, rather than the letter "m" in the Roman alphabet. Sometimes, slashes are used to enclose whole transcriptions, but this is only done in special cases for phonemic transcription, which is not a type of transcription we will need here. Finally, angle brackets are used to represent a written form. So, we could make the statement that <ew> is pronounced [əʊ] in <sew>, but [ju:] in <few>.

Consonants

A consonant is a sound created by causing some kind of impediment to the air flowing from the lungs and out of the mouth or nose. The consonant sounds in the word <call>, for example, are created first by stopping the airflow with the back of the tongue and the soft palate (<c>) and second by obstructing the airflow by placing the tip of the tongue at the back of the teeth, diverting the flow out over the sides of the tongue (<ll>).

The symbols usually used to represent English consonant sounds are as follows:

p pat pæt
b bat bæt
m mat mæt
f fat fæt
v vat væt
ʍ what ʍɒt (This is mainly heard in Scottish accents, otherwise it is generally pronounced identically with "w".)
w wit wɪt
θ teeth ti:θ
ð that ðæt
t tot tɒt
d dot dɒt
n not nɒt
s sit sɪt
z zit zɪt
ɹ rat ɹæt ("unrolled" r)
r rat ræt ("rolled" r, as in many Scottish accents, or in the Italian language.)
l lot lɒt
ʃ shot ʃɒt
ʒ leisure leʒə
j yet jet
k cat kæt
g got gɒt
ŋ thing θɪŋ
h hat hæt

Vowels

Vowels are sounds created without any impediment to the air flowing form the lungs out of the mouth. Different vowel sounds are formed by having various parts of the vocal tract (such as the tongue and lips) in different positions.

It is far more difficult to provide a summary of the vowels used in English, since vowels tend to vary far more dramatically between different accents than consonants do. You will also find that some websites or authors you read will interpret the IPA vowels slightly differently from each other. This seems to be a particular issue with the sound in <pen>, which you may see transcribed as either /e/ or /ɜ/

The table below gives most of its example words in RP, but some examples are given of how the sounds are used in other accents, particularly when they vary significantly from the RP pronunciation.

RP ExampleOther accentsTranscription
æpat--[pæt]
ɑ--pot (North American)[pɑt]
ɑ:partpout (South Africa)[pɑ:t]
a:--part (South Wales)[pa:t]
ɐ--part (New Zealand)[pɐt]
ɒpot--[pɒt]
ɔport--[pɔt]
o: --port (Autralia, S.Africa)[po:t]
epet--[pet]
e:--plate (South Wales)[ple:t]
əpatter--[pætə]
ɘ --pit (New Zealand)[pɘt]
ɜ pert--[pɜt]
ø-- pert (South Africa)[pøt]
i: peat--[pi:t]
ɪpit--[pɪt]
u:poo--[pu:]
ʊput--[pʊt]
ʌputt--[pʌt]
plate--[pleɪt]
pie--[paɪ]
ɔɪpoint--[pɔɪnt]
əʊpotent--[pəʊtənt]
pout--[paʊt]
ɪəpeer--[pɪə]
ɪæ--peer (South Africa)[pɪæ]
paired--[peəd]
ʊəpoor--[pʊə]


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
ðə kwɪk bɹaʊn fɒks dʒʌmpz əʊvə ðə leɪzi: dɒg

Further resources

Gimson, A. C., and A. Cruttenden Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Hodder Arnold, 2001).

Pullum, G. K., and W. A. Ladusaw Phonetic Symbol Guide (University of Chicago Press, 1996.)

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.)


IPA Chart with sound samples for each symbol.

Sephonics, free software with many exercises related to using the IPA.