What Is IPA Transcription?
A set of icons known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was created to represent the sounds used in the numerous languages spoken throughout the globe.
Because the IPA is the most well-known and established of all the frequently used phonetic alphabets, IPA transcription offers a way to record pronunciation in any language using a writing system that is universally recognized.
The Association Phonétique Internationale devised and published it for the first time in the late 1800s (International Phonetic Association). Based on a script made in 1847 by Isaac Pitman and Henry Ellis, the original IPA was written.
History Of IPA Transcription
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was created in the 19th century to precisely describe language pronunciation.
One goal of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was to create a distinctive symbol for each distinguishing phoneme, or sound, that separates one word from another in a language.
In a letter to Paul Passy of the International Phonetic Association, Otto Jespersen originally proposed the idea of the IPA, which was later developed by A.J. Ellis, Henry Sweet, Daniel Jones, and Passy in the late 19th century.
Its designers wanted to standardize spoken language representation in order to avoid the confusion brought on by the disparate conventional spellings used in each language.
The numerous other transcription schemes that are currently in use were also meant to be replaced by the IPA. It was initially released in 1888 and through numerous revisions in the 20th and 21st century. The alphabet is maintained by the International Phonetic Association, which also publishes a summary of it.
3 Good Reasons to Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
Why bother, you may be asking yourself? Is it time well spent learning IPA?
I’m hoping I can persuade you that the response is “yes.” If you learn IPA, you’ll:
1. Get Words Right the First Time
What should you do if a term is difficult for you to pronounce? You might inquire a native speaker, however they frequently struggle to explain:
You: How do you say “E-U-C-H”?
You’re wrong, euch.
You: Oh my?
Euch. Do you not hear the distinction?
You: I’d like to say yes, but I’m not sure how.
You could have easily looked it up using IPA knowledge and discovered that the right way to pronounce it is /ç/. You’re not sure how to read that. I will arrive.
I always make my notes in IPA when studying a new language to avoid using the “actual” spellings as much as possible. By doing this, I can make sure that I learn pronunciation before spelling.
2. Speak (With Good Pronunciation) From Day One
When you use IPA to learn how to speak entire languages rather than just words, it reaches its full potential.
For instance, if I were beginning to study German (I already speak it, but just as an example), the first thing I would do is visit the Wikipedia article for German IPA.
It says that the following sounds are present in Standard German:
/b/ /ç/ /d/ /f/ /ɡ/ /h/ /j/ /k/ /l/ /l̩/ /m/ /m̩/ /n/ /n̩/ /ŋ/ /p/ /ʁ/ /s/ /ʃ/ /t/ /ts/ /tʃ/ /v/ /x/ /z/ /ʔ/ /a/ /ɛ/ /e/ /ɪ/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /œ/ /ø/ /ʊ/ /u/ /ʏ/ /y/
Immediately, I see a few that aren’t in my native English, like /ç/, /œ/ /ø/, and /y/. I’ll know I have to practice these and take extra care to get them right.
I also see that German doesn’t contain certain English sounds like /ɹ/ and /θ/. (That’s the English “r” and “th”.) So if I don’t want to sound like an Engländer, I must ensure that /ɹ/ and /θ/ never come out of my mouth.
Remember euch? The “eu” vowel in German is similar to the “oi” in English phrases like “option,” according to the majority of textbooks. This is incorrect! If you study IPA, you’ll see that German utilizes a sound that is slightly different from English’s /ɔʏ/.
The majority of English speakers are unaware of this. Even if their German is excellent, they nevertheless pronounce euch with the English /ɔɪ/ vowel. Then they ponder why no one ever mistakes them for a German.
These kinds of information will jump off the page at you if you’re comfortable using IPA. In comparison to other students, you will pronounce words considerably more accurately. If you tell people how little time you’ve spent learning their language, they won’t believe you.
3. Gain a Deeper Understanding of Phonetics
Did you realize that English has several distinct “p” sounds? They both appear in the word “paper.” The first “p” contains an extra tiny puff of air behind it, unlike the second “p,” which does not.
The first “p” is “aspirated” in linguistic terms, whereas the second is not. The non-aspirated variant would be written as /p/ and the aspirated form as /ph/ in IPA.
Most likely, you were unaware that you done this. You’ll discover dozens of similar fascinating small facts if you learn IPA. I find it to be both fascinating and highly helpful as a language nerd.
I find it amazing that so few language courses cover phonetics. Imagine learning to play the saxophone without learning the correct finger placements for each note. Instead, he simply performed a jazz solo and instructed you to copy it. How quickly can you learn?
Your entryway to a thorough comprehension of the functioning of the human speech organ is IPA. You’ll discover how the tongue, lips, and voice cords actually create various sounds. Why this will enhance your pronunciation should be clear.
How to Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
I hope I’ve persuaded you to give IPA a try by this point. I must now explain how to introduce IPA to your brain.
163 symbols make up the IPA. But fear not—you don’t have to master them all. I’ve been using IPA for at least five years, and I still don’t know them all.
Only a portion of those 163 are used by each language. You just need to be familiar with the ones used in your target language; the others can be learned later. (For instance, you generally don’t need to learn the symbols for clicks unless you’re learning Xhosa.)
It is advisable to start with the IPA symbols that you already know how to pronounce before looking at the IPA for a foreign language. What are the IPA symbols for the language you speak?
How to Learn IPA For English
(Doesn’t speak English like a native? Instead, look up “[Your original language] phonology” on Wikipedia.)
Start with the consonants. Based on your knowledge of English pronunciation, the following symbols are pronounced exactly as you would anticipate:
/b/ /d/ /f/ /g/ /h/ /k/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /p/ /s/ /t/ /v/ /w/ /z/
If you’re Scottish, you also need /x/, which is the raspy sound at the end of “loch”: /lɔx/. I’m English, so I pronounce that word like “lock”: /lɔk/.
English also uses:
- /j/ – not to be confused with the sound we write in English as – this is the English “y” sound.
- /ŋ/ – the “ng” in “sing”.
- /θ/ – the “unvoiced” “th” in “think”, “path”, or “thistle”.
- /ð/ – the “voiced” “th” in “that”, “this”, or “there”.
- /ʃ/ – the “sh” in “ship” or “wish”.
- /ɹ/ – the “r” in “red”. Sometimes when writing English in IPA, this is written as /r/ for the sake of simplicity. But technically /r/ is the “rolled” r sound of a language like Spanish.
- /ʒ/ – the “s” in “pleasure” or “vision”, or the “g” in “genre”.
- /ʔ/ – a “glottal stop” – it’s the pause in the middle of uh-oh. In many dialects, such as my British one, this sound can replace the /t/ in words like “water” or “Saturday”.
There’s also the English and . Both sounds are actually a combination of two consonants that I’ve already covered. So in IPA is /dʒ/ and is /tʃ/.
IPA Vowel Chart
Because English vowels vary so much from dialect to dialect, it is more difficult to explain the IPA for them. I should now introduce the IPA vowel chart:
On this Wikipedia page, take a look at the “vowels” table. You can determine the IPA vowels for your native English accent by speaking the example words aloud.
Take note of the motions your tongue makes for each vowel. You should now understand how the above chart functions. A vowel’s location on the graphic corresponds to the tongue’s location in the mouth.
For instance, for /i/ (the “ee” sound in “sheet”), your tongue is high and close to the teeth. For /ɑ/ (the “a” sound in “cargo” or the way posh Brits like me say “bath”), your tongue is low and retracted. There’s a reason why dentists don’t tell you to say “ee!”
Each chart position is represented by two symbols. The sign on the left represents the “unrounded” form of the vowel, while the symbol on the right represents the “rounded” form. This pertains to the contour of your lips.
Repeat the sound /i/ and observe how your lips are stretched wide when you grin. Now pronounce /u/ (the “oo” in “shoot”): your lips are tightly pursed, as if preparing to kiss. That is the meaning of “roundedness.”
Learning new IPA Vowels
Let’s return to those unusual German sounds that were discussed previously. How is the /y/ pronounced? (In German, this sound is typically written ü>.)
Observing the vowel diagram, it is clear that /y/ and /i/ have the same tongue position. I simply need to utter /i/ with my lips rounded. This was easy! IPA makes learning new vowel sounds in any language simple.
Determine the IPA symbol for the vowel. Wikipedia searches for “(name of language) phonology” or “IPA for (language)” will typically yield the desired information. Then, locate that symbol on the chart and examine its relationship to the vowels you already know how to pronounce.
Each sound has its own article on Wikipedia, which is another advantage (and its symbol). Typically, these pages contain a list of languages that employ the specified sound, along with illustrative examples. Therefore, if you speak various languages, you have more points of reference.
Visiting the Wikipedia entry for the /y/ sound, for instance, reveals that it is absent from the majority of English dialects. However, it is present in French, a language I am familiar with.
IPA Consonant Chart
The IPA consonant chart looks like this:
Contrary to how it is with vowels, it is difficult to map consonants onto a mouth image. Rather, three characteristics are used to categorize consonants:
- How you make the sound is called “manner of articulation.”
- Where you make the sound is called the “place of articulation.”
- whether the consonant has a voice or not.
Try saying the letters “k,” “p,” and “t,” for instance. Did you ever consider how similar your respective sound productions are? Stop consonants, also termed plosives, are what they are known as. You must stop exhaling through your mouth in order to create them, then you must suddenly let out a short burst of air that has a percussive sound.
The articulation for each of these three sounds is the same (plosive), although they all occur in a different location. Your lips produce the sounds /p/ and /t/, whereas your tongue and upper gums produce the sounds /k/ and /p/.
Columns depict the location, and rows depict the way, on the consonants chart. So /k/, /p/ and /t/ are all in different columns, but on the same row.
Likewise for the English “s”, “sh”, and “th” – in IPA, that’s /s/, /ʃ/, and /θ/.. They are all “fricatives.” You make them sound like they’re being hissed out by forcing air through a small space in your mouth. The only change here, as before, is where the articulation occurs.
The symbols in certain cells are dual. On the left side of their cell, /k/, /p/, and /t/ can be found. These consonants are “unvoiced,” whereas the “voiced” variant is represented by the right-hand symbol.
The difference between an “unvoiced” and “voiced” consonant is the difference between “t” and “d” (as in “tip” and “dip”), “s” and “z” (as in “sink” and “zinc”), “p” and “b” (as in “pat” and “bat”), or “k” and “g” (as in “kill” and “gill”). For each pair, the manner and place of articulation are the same. The only difference is that your vocal cords are engaged for longer during the “voiced” version. Say each pair out loud, and you should see what I mean.
It can be thought that there is no discernible difference or that it is unimportant where two chart locations are concerned. It is for this reason that some cells, like the one with /θ/, span more than one row or column.
Similar to the previous example, if a section of the diagram is blank, it means that the way and location in question are regarded as being impossible.
For example, I recently learned some Arabic. It’s full of weird and wonderful new consonants that aren’t found in English, like /q/. (In Arabic this sound is written <ق>.) How do I pronounce this?
From the chart, I know that /q/:
- Is unvoiced
- Is a “stop”, like /k/ or /t/.
- Is “uvular”, meaning it comes from the very back of the mouth, at the uvula! (Compare with /k/, which is “velar”, meaning the back of the roof of the mouth.)
Put these three together and it’s easy to pronounce /q/. It’s like /k/ but even further back in the mouth, a very throaty sound. (You can hear it in the native pronunciation of “Qatar (قطر )”.)
Other Elements of IPA
You’ll become more and more aware of how complex the field of phonetics is as you study more about IPA. Unless you intend to pursue a career in academic linguistics, you don’t need all of it. However, the following additional points are worth briefly mentioning:
In IPA, the stressed syllable is denoted with a /ˈ/ written before the syllable. So the two pronunciations of in English are /prɪˈzɛnt/ (for the verb) and /ˈprɛzənt/ (for the noun).
If the word has a secondary stressed syllable, use /ˌ/. E.g. is /ɛkˈstrɔrdəˌnɛri/.
An additional sign, such as the emphasis on “é,” is known as a “diacritic” and is added to a letter. The “nasal” vowels have a tilde, for instance, when written in French or Portuguese using IPA: “ã”.
There are 52 diacritics in the IPA. At first, I wouldn’t be concerned about them. You may just find information on Wikipedia as you need it, just like with everything else in IPA.
Broad vs. Narrow Transcription
You’ll sometimes see IPA written with square brackets rather than slashes. This is the difference between “narrow” and “broad” transcription.
Remember the two different “p”s in “paper”? In English, the distinction between these two sounds doesn’t really matter. If you get it wrong, native speakers will hardly notice, and it won’t change the meaning of the word.
In a “broad” transcription of English, you give the general outline of the pronunciation, using slashes. So would be /ˈpeɪpə/. In a “narrow” transcription you give as much detail as possible, and you use square brackets: [ˈpʰeɪpə].
Technically, [pʰ] and [p] are different phones (units of sound). Whether or not they’re different phonemes (units of sound that convey meaning) depends on the language.
In English, they’re not different phonemes. But in Korean they are – if you say [pʰ] when you should have said [p], it can completely change the meaning of a word! So you can ignore the [pʰ]/[p] distinction in a broad transcription of English, but you shouldn’t ignore it in a broad transcription of Korean.
Exercises to Practice Your IPA Pronunciation
Now that you’ve got this far, can you read these examples of English words and phrases in IPA? (I used this site to get transcriptions of the American pronunciations.)
- /ðə kæt sæt ɑn ðə mæt/
- /ˈfluənt ɪn θri mʌnθs/
- /ˌɪntərˈnæʃənəl fəˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəˌbɛt /
Choose Your Own IPA Adventure
It’s similar to reading a “choose your own adventure” book to learn IPA. What you do next will depend on your objectives, therefore I can’t really advise you.
Which language are you interested in learning? Want to improve your pronunciation right away? Alternatively, do you want to “dig deep” and learn more about linguistics and phonetics?
An alphabetic system of phonetic notation based mostly on the Latin character is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It was developed by the International Phonetic Association as a standard for writing down speech sounds in the late 19th century.
Lexicographers, foreign language learners and teachers, linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors, those who develop constructed languages, and translators all use the IPA.
A phonetic transcription looks quite unlike a regular (‘orthographic’) transcription. The transcriber notes the way the spoken words are pronounced, using a special alphabet of phonetic symbols. The most common is the international phonetic alphabet (IPA).
The principal reason for using phonetic transcription is easily stated. When we transcribe a word or an utterance, we give a direct specification of its pronunciation. If ordinary spelling reliably indicated actual pronunciation, phonetic transcription might be unnecessary; but often it does not.
The International Phonetic Alphabet in a Nutshell
The International Phonetic Alphabet is like any alphabet, except that, where most alphabets form the words of a language, the IPA represents the sounds of a language. Any language, in fact: the IPA can represent nearly any vowel or consonant made by humans.
Enter the International Phonetic Alphabet. Linguists designed IPA to be unambiguous: every symbol has only one pronunciation. When you read a word in IPA, you’ll know exactly how to pronounce it. For example, written in IPA is /wɪnd/ (rhymes with “sinned”) or /waɪnd/ (rhymes with “blind”).
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