The International Phonetic Alphabet

Like a lot of academics and professionals, we linguists are swimming in a creamy alphabet soup of shorthand jargon and abbreviations. One of our favorites (that is, one of the most used) is IPA. No, we’re not all holed up brewing India pales ales and waiting for the next convention of the International Polka Association (although, some of us might be—I really can’t speak for everyone). To us, IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet.

As Lisa explained last week, phonetics and phonology concern themselves with the sounds of speech. English writing uses 26 letters. So, does English have 26 sounds? Think about the letter A for a minute. It makes different sounds in call and cat and came, but it would be a very odd day of autocorrect indeed before a native English speaker would use anything other than the letter A to spell these words. This certainly isn’t the only letter multitasking its little heart out.

Let’s not venture into the world of spelling and orthography just yet (Sabina will get to that in a couple weeks). Today, we’re just concerned with pronunciation. Sometimes, it would be really convenient to unambiguously write down how a word’s pronounced. For instance, what are dictionary makers supposed to do with all these letters that work too many jobs? Most dictionaries have established their own guidelines for how they’ll represent pronunciations, and the whole mess is a lot easier now when we can go online, push a button, and hear a sound clip. Things weren’t so easy back at the dawn of linguistics. There were no conventions and no sound recordings, so the 19th-century pioneers of phonology had to make up their own rules for documenting speech. And boy, did they ever. Often individually. Then, in the 1880s, some teachers got together to establish a standard international alphabet for teaching phonetics. (Teaching phonetics is what Henry Higgins does in My Fair Lady. Like other fields in linguistics, modern phonetics is much less concerned with telling people what to do and much more concerned with observing what they do already. This is sounding familiar. Have we harped on this before?) The International Phonetic Association and its masterwork, the International Phonetic Alphabet, were born.

Naturally, the IPA has been updated and improved over the years as scholarship has advanced, but the basic idea remains the same: a standard notation for the languages of the world wherein there is only one sound assigned to every symbol, and there is a symbol for every sound, and symbol-to-sound correspondences are universal and uniform no matter the language being transcribed. And, voila:

IPA Chart,, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

I know, right? I get goosebumps, too.

Some of you may be asking the obvious question: But why, though? Dictionaries get along just fine appropriating various symbols to show simple pronunciations, and why do you need a notation that can transcribe any language when most languages already have their own writing system? Shouldn’t they just write down pronunciations in their own way?

Well first, universal systems are incredibly useful and important for scholarship. Just like math or physics, the principles of linguistics are the same no matter where you are or what you’re analyzing. Can you imagine how slow and inconvenient it would be if you had to learn two different ways to write numbers for algebra and geometry? Like, in algebra you write “3,” but in geometry three is always written as “@.” That would be silly. With IPA, linguists have a consistent way to discuss the sound systems of every language. We can even look at languages we don’t speak. I might not know cyrillic, but I can still read scholarly articles about the pronunciation of Russian because I have IPA.

Second, the proprietary methods many dictionaries adopt for noting pronunciation lack precision. It’s all well and good to say we’re going to use E for e as in pen, but I can tell you right now, different dialects of English pronounce the vowel in that word very differently. Dictionary codes like this are useful, but in a limited way. Linguists have established unambiguous ways of defining which sounds they mean regardless of accent or language. You may have noticed the symbols on the IPA chart are organized into tables and diagrams. Each sound, and each corresponding symbol, is carefully defined by the position of the mouth and the actions of the vocal cords and lungs at the time of production, among other features.1 Even when studying sounds their own language doesn’t have or sounds they themselves have trouble producing, a linguist can know exactly what they’re dealing with.

Third, documentation alone isn’t enough, either written or recorded. Even with high quality sound recordings that allow us to preserve and revisit utterances and language varieties as much as our little hearts desire, IPA is still a useful, regularly used tool. It enables layers of analysis from the basic, underlying target pronunciation of a word to detailed transcriptions of exactly how a word was produced by a specific speaker a specific time they uttered it. Furthermore, a notation like IPA facilitates written scholarship. Imagine how cumbersome it would be if every article and book about phonetics had to include a CD or a collection of sound files because there was no convenient way for the author to write down their findings.

All this talk of anatomy and utterances and transcription is getting closer to what phonologists and phoneticians actually do. I’ll be back in a few weeks to start you on a crash course in Phonology 101. I promise all those made-up-looking words on the IPA chart actually serve a purpose.

All in all, IPA is pretty invaluable to linguists. Our jobs would be a lot harder and our field couldn’t have come so far without it. But we’re not selfish about it. Us linguists, we like to share. Many singers and choral directors find IPA useful, too. You can see the benefit to everyone in a large choir pronouncing the words they’re singing the same way—the music’s prettier that way! For the casual user, IPA can be a helpful thing to know when you’re learning how to pronounce another language. Yes, maybe I’m biased, but I just want to wrap the IPA up and hand it out to everyone I meet: linguists’ gift to the world. I mean, you’re welcome. No? Oh, okay.

Next week, Riccardo will be back to talk about types of languages.

Footnotes & Bibliography

1As a point of interest, the blank spots in the pulmonic consonants table are sounds that are unattested in the known languages of the world. The greyed out areas are sounds that are thought to be unproducible.

Official website of The International Phonetic Association


Too much linguistics, too little time

Hello, it’s me, Lisa, again. I just couldn’t stay away! This week, I have been given the challenging task of outlining the subfields of linguistics1. The most common responses I get when I tell people I study linguistics are variations of “What is that?” and  “What can you do with that?”. This leads me to explain extremely broadly what linguistics is (eh, er, uhm, the science of languages? Like, how they work and where they come from…. But I don’t actually learn a language! I just study them. One language or lots of them. Sort of.), and then I describe various professions you can have from studying linguistics. What all of those professions have in common is that I can do none of them, since they are related to subfields of linguistics that I haven’t specialised in (looking at you forensic and applied linguistics). My own specialties, historical linguistics and syntax, lead to nothing but long days in the library and crippling student debt, but let’s not dwell on that.

Linguistics is a minefield of subdisciplines. To set the scene, look at this very confusing mind-map I made:

Now ignore that mind-map because it does you no good. It’s highly subjective and inconclusive.  However, it does demonstrate how although these subfields are distinct, they end up intersecting quite a lot. At some point in their career, linguists need to use knowledge from several areas, no matter what their specialty. To not wear you out completely, I’m focusing here on the core areas of linguistics: Phonetics and phonology (PhonPhon for short2), syntax,  morphology, and semantics. I will also briefly talk about Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics3.

Right, let’s do this.

Phonetics and Phonology

Let’s start with the most recognisable and fundamental component of spoken language: sounds!

The phonetics part of phonetics and phonology is kind of the natural sciences, physics and biology, of linguistics. In phonetics, we describe speech production by analysing sound waves, vocal fold vibrations and the position of the anatomical elements of the mouth and throat. We use cool latinate terms, like alveolar and labiodental, to formally describe sounds, like voiced alveolar fricative (= the sound /z/ in zoo). The known possible sounds speakers can produce in the languages of the world are described by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which Rebekah will tell you all about next week4.

The phonology part of phonetics and phonology concerns itself with how these phonetic sounds organise into systems and how they’re used in languages. In a way, phonetics gives the material for phonology to build a language’s sound rule system. Phonology figures out, for example, what sounds can go together and what syllables are possible. All humans with a well-functioning vocal apparatus are able to produce the same sounds, yet different languages have different sound inventories; for example, English has a sound /θ/, the sound spelled <th> as in thing, while Swedish does not. Phonology maps these inventories and explains the rules and mechanisms behind them, looking both within one language and comparatively between languages.

Speaking of Rebekah, she summarised the difference between Phonetics and Phonology far more eloquently than I could so I’ll quote her: “Phonetics is the concrete, physical manifestation of speech sounds, and phonology is kind of the abstract side of it, how we conceptualize and store those sounds in our mind.”

Syntax (and morphology, you can come too)

Begin where I are doing to syntax explained?

Why this madness!, you may exclaim, post reading the above sentence. That, friends, is what it looks like to break syntax rules; the sentence above has a weird word order and the wrong inflections on the verbs. The same sentence obeying the rules would be: Where do I begin to explain syntax?

Syntax is one of my favourite things in the world, up there with cats and OLW Cheez Doodles. The syntax of a language is the rule system which organises word-like elements into clause structures based on the grammatical information that comes with each element. In plain English: Syntax creates sentences that look and sound right to us. This doesn’t only affect word order, but also agreement patterns (syntax rules make sure we say I sing, she sings and not I sings, she sing), and how we express semantic roles5. Syntax is kind of like the maths of linguistics; it involves a lot of problem solving and neat solutions with the aim of being as universal and objective as possible. The rules of syntax are not sensitive to prescriptive norms – the syntax of a language is a product of the language people actually produce and not what they should produce.

Morphology is, roughly, the study of word-formation. Morphology takes the smallest units of meaningful information (morphemes), puts them together if necessary, and gives them to syntax so that syntax can do its thing (much like how phonetics provides material for phonology, morphology provides material for syntax). A morpheme can be an independent word, like the preposition in, but it can also be the -ed at the end of waited, telling us that the event happened in the past. This is contrasting phonology, which deals with units which are not necessarily informative; the ‘ed’ in Edinburgh is a phonological unit, a syllable, but it gives us no grammatical information and is therefore not a morpheme. Languages can have very different types of morphological systems. English tends to separate informative units into multiple words, whereas languages like Swahili can express whole sentences in one word. Riccardo will discuss this in more detail in a few weeks.

Semantics (with a pinch of pragmatics)

Semantics is the study of meaning (she said, vaguely). When phonetics and phonology has taken care of the sounds and morphology and syntax have created phrases and sentences from those sounds, semantics takes over to make sense of it all – what does a word mean and what does a sentence mean and how does that interact with and/or influence the way we think? Let’s attempt an elevator pitch for semantics: Semantics discusses the relationship between words, phrases and sentences, and the meanings they denote; it concerns itself with the relationship between linguistic elements and the world in which they exist. (Have you got a headache yet?).

If phonetics is the physics/biology of linguistics and syntax is the maths, Semantics is the philosophy of linguistics, both theoretical and formal. In my three years of studying semantics, we went from discussing whether a sentence like The King of France is bald is true or false (considering there is no king of France in the real world), to translating phrases and words into logical denotation ( andVP = λP[λQ[λx[P(x) ∧ Q(x)]]] ), to discussing universal patterns in linguistics where semantics and syntax meet and the different methods languages use to adhere to these patterns, for example how Mandarin counts “uncountable” nouns.

Pragmatics follows semantics in that it is also a study of meaning, but pragmatics concerns the way we interpret utterances. It is much more concerned with discourse, language in actual use and language subtexts. For example, pragmatics can describe the mechanisms involved when we interpret the sentence ‘it’s cold in here’ to mean ‘can you close the window?’.

Sociolinguistics and historical linguistics

Sociolinguistics has given me about 80% of my worthy dinner table conversations about linguistics. It is the study of the way language interacts with society, identity, communities and other social aspects of our world, and it also includes the study of geographical dialects (dialectology). Sociolinguistics is essentially the study of language variation and change within the above areas, both at a specific point in time (synchronically) and across a period of time (diachronically); my post last week, as well as Riccardo’s and Sabina’s posts in the weeks before, dealt with issues relevant for sociolinguistics.

When studying the HLC’s speciality historical linguistics, which involves the historical variation and change of language(s), we often need to consider sociolinguistics as a factor in why a certain historical language change has taken place or why we see a variation in the linguistic phenomenon we’re investigating. We also often need to consider several other fields of linguistics in order to understand a phenomenon, which can play out something like this:

  • Is this strange spelling variation found in this 16th century letter because it was pronounced differently (phonetics, phonology), and if so, was it because of a dialectal difference (sociolinguistics)? Or, does this spelling actually indicate a different function of the word (morphology, semantics)?
  • What caused this strange word order change starting in the 14th century? Did it start within the syntax itself, triggered by an earlier different change, or did it arise from a method of trying to focus the reader’s attention on something specific in the clause (information structure, pragmatics)? Did that word order arise because this language was in contact with speakers of another language which had that word order (sociolinguistics, typology)?

To summarise, phonetics and phonology gives us sounds and organises them. The sounds become morphemes which are put into the syntax. The syntactic output is then interpreted through semantics and pragmatics. Finally, the external context in which this all takes place and is interpreted is dealt with by sociolinguistics. Makes sense?

There is so much more to say about each of these subfields; it’s hard to do any of them justice in such a brief format! However, the point of this post was to give you a foundation to stand on when we go into these topics more in-depth in the future. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to know more about, you can always comment or email, or have a look at some of the literature I mention in the footnotes. Next week, Rebekah will give us some background on the IPA – one of the most important tools for any linguist. Thanks for reading!



1I had to bring out the whole arsenal of introductory textbooks to use as inspiration for this post. Titles include but are not limited to: Beginning Linguistics by Laurie Bauer; A Practical introduction to Phonetics by J.C. Catford; A Historical Syntax of English by Bettelou Los; What is Morphology? By Mark Aronoff and Kristen Fudeman; Meaning: A slim guide to Semantics by Paul Elborne; Pragmatics by Yan Huang; and Introducing Sociolinguistics by Miriam Meyerhoff. I also consulted old lecture notes from my undergraduate studies at the University of York.

2This is of course not an official term, just a nickname used by students.

3We’ll hopefully get back to some of the others another time. For now, if you are interested, a description of most of the subfields is available from a quick google search of each of the names you find in the mind map.

4If you want a sneak peek, you can play around with this interactive IPA chart where clicking a sound on the chart will give you its pronunciation.

5This is more visible in languages that have an active case system. English has lost case on all proper nouns, but we can still see the remains of the English case system on pronouns (hehimhis).