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What Is The International Phonetic Alphabet?

Pronouncing English words like "hyperbole" or "plough" can give even native speakers trouble. The International Phonetic Alphabet started out as an attempt to help navigate these murky spelling waters, and became a project with global scope. It aims to reproduce all existing sounds in language.

Illustration by Kati Szilagyi

Every time a language’s spelling is reformed to achieve more accurate phonetic representation — such as when European Portuguese dropped “ph" for “f" — a tsunami of complaints washes our cultural shores. If writing as we speak is the goal we strive for, why not legitimize the use of different spelling options for different accents?

If that weren’t bad enough, many languages have a standard spelling that resembles a madman’s joke. Still remember that moment when the teacher wrote “through" on the blackboard and you froze in a deep state of shock? Who would’ve thought such a simple sound could be represented alphabetically in such a monstrous way?

The birth of the IPA

These and other concerns led linguists at the end of the 19th century to create a writing system that would represent all of the phonemes in European languages with considerable accuracy. The International Phonetic Association inaugurated and furthered the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of writing using letters and diacritics to sound out speech. The intention was systematic and the result led to a succession of changes in an attempt to incorporate sounds from other non-European languages. The model used for the IPA was a phonetic script created for English in 1847 by Isaac Pitman and Henry Ellis.

One spelling system fits all

Let’s begin with English and the word “dictionary," with possible IPA spellings. It is read [ˈdɪkʃ(ə)n(ə)ri] in British English and [ˈdɪkʃəˌnɛri] in American English. Notice how the little diacritic “ˌ" points to a stressed syllable right after it pops up! Extremely helpful for language learners. But if we want to include dialects, we will have to find as many variations of the IPA as these words require. So whereas in common spelling, the same word can be read differently by different readers, in IPA these words will always be read with a great degree of accuracy, including the idiosyncrasies typical of each dialect and accent.

This is not only valuable across different regional variations, but serves a practical purpose to any individual speaker. Consider “tear," which can either be the verb, “to tear" or one of two differently pronounced nouns. So which is which? Well, in the US the verb is read [ter] and the noun can either be [ter] or [tɪr], depending on the meaning. In Britain it is [teər] and [tɪər], respectively.

Silent letters: who needs ‘em?

English has an incredible amount of silent letters. But how do we know where to spot them? Well, the IPA transcription in any dictionary will help us: daughter in US English is [ˈdɑː.t̬ɚ] and laughter is [ˈlæf.tɚ]. Pushing it even further: which one of the following words rhymes with enough: though, through, plough, or dough or cough? The IPA will tell you that cough (UK [kɒf], US [kɑːf]) is the only word on the list that vaguely rhymes with enough (UK [ɪˈnʌf], US [əˈnʌf]).

Political myth (political mirth?) states that George W. Bush met Tony Blair and denounced the French for having no word for “entrepreneur." So, let’s imagine someone sits down and explains to the former president that entrepreneur exists in both languages and is read [ˌɑːn.trə.prəˈnɝː] in American English and [ɑ̃trəprənɶr] in French. And that, no, the word does not originally come from English.

The IPA grows in scope

The IPA was initially a Eurocentric venture dedicated to European phonology, but linguists’ endless curiosity — and inclination to be extremely anal about language — soon broadened the scope to include languages such as Arabic. The newly revised alphabet was unveiled at the dawn of the 20th century. Successive revisions include the creation of a separate table for vowels and the inclusion of letters for sounds found in African languages like [!] and [|], clicks you can sound out with a clap of the tongue against the top and/or bottom of the mouth — sounds you’ve probably made before when doing an impression of a horse’s trot.

More than a century later, it seems the IPA is extensive and complete. Or is it? Western society (and therefore linguists) have yet to make contact with many cultures – some in South America, others in Asia. Having developed in isolation, their speech sounds may require the IPA’s revision and extension. We can assume that most of these cultures have not developed a system of writing, since the majority of human languages are solely oral. Surprisingly, the IPA has also served this purpose well, putting to paper the communicative sounds used by previously unknown human societies, functioning therefore as an ersatz script. Writing systems for living languages with non-Latin alphabets have also been represented by the IPA, showing its scope. It is such a versatile writing system that even opera singers have been known to use it when learning arias in foreign languages!

Criticism of the IPA

So is the IPA without blemish? Not quite. We will never be able to notate the way a word i said exactly. Otherwise there would be one transcription for each word uttered by anyone at any given time. Blurting out “really?" while amused is not the same as gasping “really?" in a long drawl when positively shocked. The IPA will always remove contingent phonetic traits and transcribe an abstraction. This abstraction is changeable according to general phonetic representations in the IPA, but it will never capture the accurate sound of an utterance. There is a great deal more to phonetics than individual blocks. Language is not merely an acoustic phenomenon to be dissected, it has an ebb and flow resembling music. We can transcribe a poem with the IPA into English spoken in Dublin, Cardiff and South London, but we will have to stretch our imagination to hear the lilting sounds of the Irish brogue, the sing-song meanderings of the Welsh accent and the nonchalant snarl of English kids from south of the Thames.

Being everything to everyone

It doesn’t stop linguists from trying, though, and hence the creative compromises made when trying to make the IPA both accurate and widely accessible. For instance, let’s take the word pretzel in English. A simpler transcription could be written as [ˈpɹɛt.sl], but if we want to get down to the nitty-gritty we will choose a more detailed one and write [ˈpʰɹ̥ʷɛʔt.sɫ̩]. Notice the abundance of information in this latter version? We call it a narrow transcription, as opposed to a (simpler) broad transcription. It’s not usually of particular service to most learners and speakers, but it is quite necessary for scholars and advanced linguists. Broad transcription represents the main phonetic features, whereas narrow transcription includes phonetic variations down to the granular level.

The IPA at work

For speakers of languages with a high phonetic consistency (like Spanish or German), the IPA is a curious eccentricity, but anyone can appreciate the IPA’s usefulness whenever confronted with the quandaries of English spelling. In 1920, the Dutch writer and traveller Gerard Nolst Trenité published The Chaos, a poem highlighting the absurdities of English spelling. Here you will find it side by side with a transcription into the IPA for US English. See if you can overcome the hurdles of difficult passages on the left by comparing them with the IPA on the right. Happy deciphering!

THE CHAOS
by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité
written in IPA
Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say said, pay – paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing.
Thames, examining, combining
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.
From “desire”: desirable – admirable from “admire.”
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.
Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.
Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone. Balmoral.
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,
Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.
Scene, Melpomene, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rhyme with “darky.”
Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s O.K.,
When you say correctly: croquet.
Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive, and live,
Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police, and lice.
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label,
Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.
Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous, clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger.
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.
Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.
And then: singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual.
Seat, sweat; chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific,
Tour, but our and succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria,
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.
Say aver, but ever, fever.
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess – it is not safe:
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.
Heron, granary, canary,
Crevice and device, and eyrie,
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,
Ear but earn, and wear and bear
Do not rhyme with here, but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation – think of psyche!
Is a paling, stout and spikey,
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing “groats” and saying “grits”?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict, and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rhymes with “enough”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”
My advice is – give it up!
ˈdɪrəst ˈkriʧər ɪn kriˈeɪʃən
ˈstʌdiɪŋ ˈɪŋglɪʃ prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən,
aɪ wɪl tiʧ jʊ ɪn maɪ vɜrs
saʊndz laɪk kɔrps, kɔr, hɔrs ənd wɜrs
aɪ wɪl kip ju, ˈsuzi, ˈbɪzi,
meɪk jər hɛd wɪð hit groʊ ˈdɪzi.
tɛr ɪn aɪ jər drɛs jul tɛr,
soʊ ʃəl aɪ! oʊ, hir maɪ prɛr,
preɪ, kənˈsoʊl jər ˈlʌvɪŋ ˈpoʊət,
meɪk maɪ koʊt lʊk nu, dɪr, soʊ ɪt!
ʤəst kəmˈpɛr hɑrt, bɪrd ənd hɜrd,
daɪz ənd ˈdaɪət, lɔrd ənd wɜrd,
sɔrd ənd swɔrd, rɪˈteɪn ənd ˈbrɪtən.
(maɪnd ðə ˈlætər, haʊ ɪts ˈrɪtən).
meɪd həz nɑt ðə saʊnd əv beɪd,
seɪ sɛd, peɪ – peɪd, leɪd, bət plæd.
naʊ aɪ ˈʃʊrli wɪl nɑt pleɪg ju
wɪð sʌʧ wɜrdz əz veɪg ənd ague,
bət bi ˈkɛrfəl haʊ jʊ spik,
seɪ breɪk, steɪk, bət blik ənd strik.
ˈpriviəs, ˈprɛʃəs, fuchsia, ˈvaɪə,
paɪp, snaɪp, ˈrɛsəpi ənd ˈkwaɪər,
Cloven, ˈʌvən, haʊ ənd loʊ,
skrɪpt, rɪˈsit, ʃu, ˈpoʊəm, toʊ.
hir mi seɪ, dɪˈvɔɪd əv ˈtrɪkəri:
ˈdɔtər, ˈlæftər ənd Terpsichore,
ˈtaɪfɔɪd, ˈmizəlz, topsails, aɪlz.
ˈɛgˌzaɪlz, similes, riˈvaɪlz.
ˈhoʊli, ˈhɑli, ˈsɪgnəl, ˈsaɪnɪŋ.
tɛmz, ɪgˈzæmɪnɪŋ, kəmˈbaɪnɪŋ
ˈskɑlər, ˈvɪkər, ənd sɪˈgɑr,
ˈsoʊlər, ˈmaɪkə, wɔr, ənd fɑr.
frʌm “dɪˈzaɪər”: dɪˈzaɪrəbəl – ˈædmərəbəl frʌm “ædˈmaɪr.”
ˈlʌmbər, ˈplʌmər, bir, bət ˈbraɪər.
ˈʧætəm, ˈbrugəm, rɪˈnaʊn, bət noʊn.
ˈnɑləʤ, dʌn, bət gɔn ənd toʊn,
wʌn, əˈnɛməni. bælˈmɔrəl.
ˈkɪʧən, ˈlaɪkən, ˈlɔndri, ˈlɔrəl,
ˈgɜrtrud, ˈʤɜrmən, wɪnd, ənd maɪnd.
sin, Melpomene, ˈmænˈkaɪnd,
ˈtɔrtəs, ˈtɜrkwɔɪz, ˈʃæmwɑ-ˈlɛðər,
ˈrɛdɪŋ, ˈrɛdɪŋ, ˈhiðən, ˈhɛðər.
ðɪs fəˈnɛtɪk ˈlæbəˌrɪnθ
gɪvz mɔs, groʊs, brʊk, bruʧ, naɪnθ,
plɪnθ.
ˈbɪlət dəz nɑt ɛnd laɪk bæˈleɪ;
buˈkeɪ, ˈwɔlət, ˈmælɪt, ˈʃæˌleɪ;
blʌd ənd flʌd ər nɑt laɪk fud,
nɔr ɪz moʊld laɪk ʃəd ənd wʊd.
ˈbæŋkwət əz nɑt ˈnɪrli pɑrˈkeɪ,
wɪʧ ɪz sɛd tə rime wɪð “darky.”
ˈvɪskəs, ˈvɪskaʊnt, loʊd, ənd brɔd.
təˈwɔrd, tə ˈfɔrwərd, tə rɪˈwɔrd.
ənd jər prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃənz oʊ.keɪ.,
wɛn jʊ seɪ kəˈrɛktli: kroʊˈkeɪ.
ˈraʊndəd, ˈwundəd, griv, ənd sɪv,
frɛnd ənd find, əˈlaɪv, ənd lɪv,
ˈlɪbərti, ˈlaɪˌbrɛri, hiv, ənd ˈhɛvən,
ˈreɪʧəl, eɪk, ˈmʌˌstæʃ, ɪˈlɛvən,
wi seɪ ˈhæloʊd, bət əˈlaʊd,
ˈpipəl, ˈlɛpərd, toʊd, bət vaʊd.
mɑrk ðə ˈdɪfərəns, mɔˈroʊvər,
bɪˈtwin ˈmuvər, ˈplʌvər, ˈdoʊvər,
ˈliʧɪz, ˈbriʧɪz, waɪz, prɪˈsaɪs,
ˈʧælɪs, bət pəˈlis, ənd laɪs.
ˈkæməl, ˈkɑnstəbəl, ənˈsteɪbəl,
ˈprɪnsəpəl, dɪˈsaɪpəl, ˈleɪbəl,
ˈpɛtəl, ˈpinəl, ənd kəˈnæl,
weɪt, ˈsɜrmaɪz, pleɪt, ˈprɑməs, pæl.
sut, swit, ˈruən, ˈsɜrkət, ˈkɑnduɪt,
Rime wɪð “ʃɜrk ɪt” ænd “bɪˈɑnd ɪt.”
bət ɪt əz nɑt hɑrd tə tɛl,
waɪ ɪts pɑl, mɔl, bət pɑl mɔl.
ˈmʌsəl, ˈmʌskjələr, gaol, ˈaɪərn,
ˈtɪmbər, ˈklaɪmər, ˈbʊljən, ˈlaɪən,
wɜrm ənd stɔrm, ʃeɪz, ˈkeɪɑs, ənd ʧɛr,
ˈsɛnətər, ˈspɛkteɪtər, ˈmeɪər,
ˈaɪvi, ˈprɪvi, ˈfeɪməs, clamour
ənd enamour rime wɪð ˈhæmər.
ˈpʊsi, ˈhʌsi, ənd pəˈzɛs,
ˈdɛzɜrt, bət dɪˈzɜrt, ˈæˌdrɛs.
gɑlf, wʊlf, ˈkaʊntənəns, luˈtɛnənts.
hɔɪst, ɪn lu əv flægz, lɛft ˈpɛnənts.
ˈrɪvər, ˈraɪvəl, tum, bɑm, koʊm,
dɑl ənd roʊl ənd səm ənd hoʊm.
ˈstreɪnʤər dəz nɑt rime wɪð ˈæŋgər.
ˈniðər dəz dɪˈvaʊər wɪð clangour.
soʊl, bət faʊl ənd gɔnt bət ænt.
fɑnt, frʌnt, woʊnt, wɑnt, grænd, ənd grænt.
ʃuz, goʊz, dʌz. naʊ fɜrst seɪ: ˈfɪŋgər.
ənd ðɛn: ˈsɪŋər, ˈʤɪnʤər, ˈlɪŋgər,
riəl, zil, mɔv, gɔz, ənd geɪʤ,
ˈmɛrɪʤ, ˈfoʊlɪʤ, məˈrɑʒ, eɪʤ.
ˈkwiri dəz nɑt rime wɪð ˈvɛri,
nɔr dəz ˈfjʊri saʊnd laɪk ˈbɛri.
dɑst, lɔst, poʊst; ənd dɔθ, klɔθ, lɑθ;
ʤɑb, ʤɑb; ˈblɑsəm, ˈbʊzəm, oʊθ.
ðoʊ ðə ˈdɪfərəns simz ˈlɪtəl,
wi seɪ ˈækʧuəl, bət victual.
sit, swɛt; ʧeɪst, kæst; li, eɪt,
haɪt;
pʊt, nʌt; ˈgrænət, ənd ˈjuˌnaɪt.
ˈrifər dəz nɑt rime wɪð ˈdɛfər,
Feoffer dʌz, ənd ˈzɛfər, ˈhɛfər.
dʌl, bʊl, ˈʤɛfri, ʤɔrʤ, eɪt, leɪt,
hɪnt, paɪnt, ˈsɛnət, bət sɪˈdeɪt.
ˈsinɪk, ˈærəbɪk, pəˈsɪfɪk,
ˈsaɪəns, ˈkɑnʃəns, ˌsaɪənˈtɪfɪk,
tʊr, bət ˈaʊər ənd succour, fɔr,
gæs, əˈlæs, ənd ˈɑrkənˌsɑ.
si, aɪˈdiə, ˈgɪni, ˈɛriə,
sɑlm, məˈriə, bət məˈlɛriə,
juθ, saʊθ, ˈsʌðərn, klɛnz ənd klin,
ˈdɑktrən, ˈtɜrpənˌtaɪn, məˈrin.
kəmˈpɛr ˈeɪliən wɪð ɪˈtæljən,
ˈdændəˌlaɪən wɪð bəˈtæljən.
ˈsæli wɪð ˈælaɪ, jeɪ, ji,
aɪ, aɪ, eɪ, aɪ, weɪ, ki, ki.
seɪ ˈeɪvər, bət ˈɛvər, ˈfivər.
ˈniðər, ˈlɛʒər, skeɪn, rəˈsivər.
ˈnɛvər gɛs – ɪt əz nɑt seɪf:
wi seɪ kævz, vælvz, hæf, bət rælf.
ˈhɛrən, granary, kəˈnɛri,
ˈkrɛvəs ənd dɪˈvaɪs, ənd ˈɛri,
feɪs bət ˈprɛfəs, bət ɪˈfeɪs,
flɛm, flɛgˈmætɪk, æs, glæs, beɪs.
lɑrʤ, bət ˈtɑrgət, ʤɪn, gɪv, ˈvɜrʤɪŋ,
ɔt, aʊt, ʤaʊst, ənd ˈskaʊər, bət ˈskɜrʤɪŋ,
ir bət ɜrn, ənd wɛr ənd bɛr
dʊ nɑt rime wɪð hir, bət ɛr.
ˈsɛvən əz raɪt, bət soʊ əz ˈivɪn,
ˈhaɪfən, roughen, ˈnɛfju, ˈstivən,
ˈmʌŋki, ˈdɑŋki, klɜrk, ənd ʤɜrk,
æsp, græsp, wɑsp, ənd kɔrk ənd wɜrk.
prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən – θɪŋk əv ˈsaɪki!
ɪz ə ˈpeɪlɪŋ, staʊt ənd spikey,
woʊnt ɪt meɪk jʊ luz jər wɪts,
ˈraɪtɪŋ “groʊts” ənd ˈseɪɪŋ “grɪts”?
ɪts ə dɑrk əˈbɪs ɔr ˈtʌnəl,
strun wɪð stoʊnz, laɪk rowlock, gunwale,
Islington ənd aɪl əv waɪt,
ˈhaʊˌswaɪf, ˈvɜrdɪkt, ənd ɪnˈdaɪt!
doʊnt jʊ θɪŋk soʊ, ˈridər, ˈræðər,
ˈseɪɪŋ ˈlæðər, ˈbeɪðər, ˈfɑðər?
ˈfaɪnəli: wɪʧ raɪmz wɪð “ɪˈnʌf”
ðoʊ, θru, plaʊ, kɑf, hʌf, ɔr
tʌf?
ˈhɪkəp həz ðə saʊnd ʌv “kʌp.”
maɪ ædˈvaɪs ɪz – gɪv ɪt ʌp!

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