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, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/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

 

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