The International Phonetic Alphabet

What is the IPA?
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of phonetic notations (pronunciations) based on the Latin alphabet. The IPA breaks down the English language, as well as other languages into distinct sounds, assigning symbols for each of those sounds. As we will see throughout this course, as language has evolved, pronunciations have changed. The aim of the IPA is to promote the scientific study of phonetics, so by using the IPA as a tool for understanding language development, one can pinpoint these changes and see how English has become the language that it is today. It also gives the world-wide academic community a standard for phonetic representations in all languages.

IPA was created and developed in Paris in 1886 by British and French language teachers. Led by linguist Paul Passy, this group of phoneticians (who would later be known as the International Phonetic Association), originally had hoped to supplement students' studies of foreign languages and aid in young children's first learning how to read.

Passy, born in France, also spoke English, German and Italian. He was primarily self-taught in phonetics. His passion for language was evident when he opted to be a language teacher for ten years as an alternative to military service. Originally, he hoped to improve his students' pronunciations of foreign words by providing them with the correct spelling of a given word next to his own phonetic transcription.

Being such a persuasive and influential advocate for phonetics had a profound effect on many through not only his teaching but also his publications. He wrote textbooks in phonetic script for French students (Premier livre de lecture, 1884) and for learners of French as a foreign language (Le français parlé. Morceaux choisis à l’usage des étrangers avec la prononciation figurée, 1886); in addition, he wrote Les éléments d’anglais parlé and an earlier textbook for the learning of English. His comprehensive studies in the phonetics of French are contained in his Les sons du français, 1887. Passy had many other works published as well.

Passy was also a political and religious activist, but he is best known for his work and his establishment of the IPA. Passy died in 1940.

Why do we need an IPA?
How does one pronounce words? Largely, it depends on the letter order and even the dialect of the speaker. The IPA helps a speaker pronounce a word that he or she may have never seen before, and thus aids in understanding with its universal application to approaching language comprehension ( For example, sometimes, letters are silent and not pronounced; the IPA shows how one would pronounce these words. Further, there are many sounds in other languages that are not represented in English that IPA incorporates. (Linguistics 201: Phonetics).

In addition, though there are some languages that are spelled almost entirely phonetically, they have different alphabets. This disconnect can cause confusion even if they share the phonetic reading of their letters. Another key factor in having an IPA is that even though there are similar letters in many languages, these letters are often pronounced differently. For example, the letter "H" in Spanish is silent when found at the beginning of a word, as in "hola". However, in English, which shares the letter "H", it is pronounced, as in "hello". To add to the confusion, these two words, "hola" and "hello," share the same meaning despite these different pronunciations.

These letters or units of speech can be categorized as either phonemes or phones. A phoneme is considered the smallest contrastive unit of speech that serves to distinguish between meaning of words. It’s pronunciation is dependent on its allophones or variations (ex: both p and ph are allophones of p). Hence, the difference between the pronunciation of phone and pepper. It is represented by slashes/p/b/ etc. The smallest identifiable unit found in a stream of speech is that of the phone. Its pronunciation is defined, and it is represented between brackets: [b],[p].

Phonemes that are comprised of
consonant sounds can be voiced, when the vocal chords vibrate, or unvoiced, when they do not vibrate. Stops, affricates, fricatives, nasals, lateral and retroflex and semivowels are all manners of articulation while the defined terms bilabial, labiodentals, interdental, alveolar,alveopalatal, and velar are points of articulation, or where the sound originates from. Click Here for More Terms. See diagram from the History of English Phonemes website below.


Phonemes that are comprised with vowel sounds are classified as high, middle and low and are pronounced from the front, central or back of the mouth; saying “i” comes right towards the front while “o” sounds are formed towards the back. While a two toned vowel combination, or a diphthong (discussed below) creates a new sound that both vowels could not create separately, like foot, lied, mean, chair.

How Many Phonemes in the English Language?
There is no simple answer to this quesion; the number varies according to experts. According to several scholarly articles and linguistic and phonology forums, it is clear that the number of phonemes is steeped in controversy. However, the generally accepted range is between 36 and 42.

“Counting the number of phonemes is like counting the number of colors in a rainbow,” writes linguist Steve Bett, adding, “When we try to break up a continuous spectrum into discrete units, we move to the realm of fuzzy logic.” Despite the controversy and inability of linguists to agree on a precise number, Bett states that it is generally agreed that, “the minimum number of unblended phonemes in all varieties of English is 36,” while his research suggests that the number could be as high as 62.

The controversy stems from the inclusion of “blends,” which offer seemingly endless opportunities for argument. Though linguists cannot pinpoint an exact number that comprise both blended and unblended phonemes, Bett concludes that at the very least, “We can identify 36 clear instances of the primary or uncombined phonemes in speech [14 pure vowels, 22 pure consonants],” and in his words, that is all we really need to “get by.”

The units of sound discussed earlier can be divided into two different categories: consonants and vowels.

  • Consonants are defined by their point of articulation: where the sound is produced (where the tongue touches a particular part of the mouth to create a sound), manner of articulation: how the sound is produced (how the tongue, lips, and jaw are involved in making sound), voicedness: what the vocal folds are doing (also consider that there are two variables during voicing--intensity and duration), and nasality: whether there is air coming out of the nose while producing the sound.
  • Vowels are then defined by their height: high (articulated with the jaw relatively high and the mouth nearly closed), mid (articulated with the jaw in the middle of vertical motion and the mouth half opened), low (articulated with the jaw relatively low and the mouth opened), front (where the tongue is so far front without actually creating a consonant), central, back (where the tongue is so far back without actually creating a consonant); roundedness: are the lips rounded (and is it endolabial or exolabial); tenses/laxeness: is there tension in the tongue root.

These consonants and vowels occur at different positions in the vocal tract. Those symbols are defined and shown below.

vowels.gif (24182 byte)
vowels.gif (24182 byte)

Monophthongs, Diphtongs, and Triphthongs

Monopthongs remain stable during articulation. In other words, the tongue's height and position in the mouth does not move during sound production. When producing diphthongs and triphthongs, the height and position in the mouth changes from the initial articulation to the final sound production.
  • Monophthongs are basic single vowel sounds as in "bet" or "man."
  • Dipthong examples include words like "boy," "may," or "price."
  • Triphthongs include words that mix three vowel sounds together, such as "lawyer" or "power."

Not all dialects of English have triphthongs. In terms of real-time pronunciation, monopthongs have the same duration as diphthongs and triphthongs (The Phonology of English Vowels: An Introduction).

Limitations of the IPA
There is an intrinsic limitation to this universal system--real sounds are infinitely variable. A single sound varies slightly each time it is pronounced. Thus, the IPA can only capture a part of unique accents, or way of speaking.

Furthermore, there is an inability to properly translate some African languages that rely on clicks, clacks, and other similar sounds. For example, the Xhosa language spoken by many South Africans, and others throughout parts of Africa, relies on the sound of clicks made by pressing and releasing the tongue from the palette. This sound does not seem to have an accurate symbol in the IPA alphabet. Possible workarounds to this problem include using a hard "k" sound or treating the click as a "ts" such as in the sound "tsk." Unfortunately, however, both of these workarounds are not completely accurate representations of the actual sound spoken by the Xhosa people.

When comparing sounds across languages, the minute differences become more important. What seems to be the same sound in different languages may actually vary in minute degrees. For example, degrees of aspiration in the sound "t" in English, German, Georgian, Mongolian; or the type of glottalization in the sound "t" in Georgian, Navajo, or even in English hatbox; even [m] differs in English and Russian in slight ways that the IPA does not distinguish. Thus, the IPA would not be able to transcribe all the phonetic detail of, say, a Russian accent in English.

The IPA ignores minute differences among sounds if those differences never contrast with one another in any single language. The IPA symbols, therefore, are generalizations. The sounds of speech, however, are more complicated.
Therefore, when comparing nearly identical sounds from language to language one must be aware that the IPA is only accurate up to a point. To get a complete picture of native pronunciation, one must fill in the tiny phonetic details left out by the IPA. There is no real solution to this problem. One could invent a slightly different symbol for all the different examples of, say, aspirated "t" or glottal "t," but inventing different symbols for extremely similar sounds in each language would defeat the very purpose for which the IPA was invented.

Ultimately, there is uniqueness of sounds in each individual language and because similar sounds are, in reality, minutely variable from language to language, this renders the IPA an imperfect and incomplete alphabet, despite the fact that it is the closest thing to an ideal alphabet we will probably ever have. This inevitable problem derives from the very nature of speaking and writing. Sound can only be depicted with discrete graphic units to a certain degree of precision. Because of the nature of language, alphabets can be "imperfect." With a finite set of symbols, an alphabet can only approximate the infinite number of actual sound variations in speech.

Even if linguists devised a complete set of transcription symbols, the phonetician's task would still be incomplete. This is because languages change over time (both pronunciations and meanings), and new smbols would have to be devised as sounds changed. All human languages change over time--some quickly, others more slowly.
Information courtesy of the following website: (Linguistics 201: Phonetics).

Further Limitations - Using the IPA on the Computer

Though the International Phonetic Alphabet is helpful to language instructors and learners, there is, however, a significant limitation: the IPA symbols can be difficult to type on a computer if one does not understand how to access them. As noted on, a website dedicated to giving help and advice for English language learners, the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) Phonetic Alphabet was created. The ASCII allows a language learner or instructor, for example, to type on a standard keyboard using symbols available on that keyboard. Those symbols have to then be copied and pasted into documents.

Using IPA Symbols in a Word Processing Document

More options have become available, however, in making IPA more accessible to the general public. There are many pay-per-download IPA fonts available, but another way to insert phonetic symbols into Word documents is by using Unicode phonetic symbol fonts which are commonly supplied by Microsoft, free of charge. According to Professor John Wells of University College, London on his website, Unicode Phonetic Transcriptions, you simply open a word document, click on the font box, and select Lucida Sans Unicode or Ariel Sans Unicode from the drop-down font menu; click on Insert, Symbol, and Subset—IPA Extensions. This will provide the unique IPA symbols, and you may use your standard Lucida Sans Unicode or Ariel Sans Unicode fonts for the characters which are standard English letters. Other options are Charis SIL (download), Doulos SIL (download) or Gentium (download).

There are also many ways to add IPA fonts to your word processor using familiar actions such as including copy and paste; insert/symbol; character map; auto correct (“Eureka”); (Word 2002) Alt-x; and the Phonetic Keyboard. All of these are explained on the Wells’ UCL webpage.Though somewhat tedious, one way to insert IPA symbols into a Word Document, email, etc. is to use the following website: IPA. Here, you can type your desired symbols and then copy and paste your work into the desired document. The text does not always transfer with complete accuracy to an outside document, so you may need to use a font such as Lucida Sans Unicode to avoid any errors.

Additionally, if using an Apple computer, IPA characters can be activated by checking the box "Character Palette" under the Input Menu of the International section in the System Preferences Pane. At that point, all one has to do is click the flag in the top toolbar and choose "Show character palette", click "symbols" and then "phonetic symbols". The easiest way to use the characters in a document is to drag and drop them from the character palette to where they belong.

Also, if the above doesn't work for you, another very basic means is to go to the following link Macchiato Unicode. All of the characters are listed and it is possible to go in and copy/paste into your document. Just another tip for inserting IPA.

Limitations - Variations in Pronunciation Within One Language
As discussed on, the frustration in learning a second language, specifically English, only mounts when one takes into consideration the subtle differences in accent between England and America. Though the language is the same, regional dialects cause the same word to sound quite different in pronunciation, causing frustration for the English language learner. The variations stem primarily from the vowel sounds rather than the consonants. The site provides an audio recording of both the American and British variations of the word so an English language learner can start to understand the variations in dialect, or, perhaps, simply focus their studies on perfecting one or the other. However, this site does not go so far as to break down the variations in dialect within each of the countries.

Pronunciation Guides and Differences
The IPA pronunciation guide differs from the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary in some respects. The American Heritage Dictionary utilizes, for the most part, the actual letters of the English alphabet and relies upon accents, dashes, and other marks above the letters to indicate alternate pronunciations. This system is called Pronunciation Respelling and while it is easy for native readers to understand, English Language Learners often find it a difficult system to use.

On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary uses a pronunciation guide that, while keeping the use of accents, dashes, and other symbols, also relies heavily upon italicizing and manipulating the appearance of the letters of the standard English alphabet. For example, certain pronunciations are indicated through the use of a stylized e that has been italicized and may have a small tag on the bottom.

In each case, the American Heritage and Oxford English dictionaries use a modified version of the standard English alphabet to express phonemic pronunciations of words or letter combinations in English. This differs greatly from the IPA because these dictionaries are only useful for determining the pronunciation of English words. The IPA uses relatively unique characters to represent universal sounds made by the human voice, which means it can represent the pronunciation of any word in virtually any language. A language learner unfamiliar with English would be unable to discern pronunciations of English words found in the American Heritage or Oxford English dictionary. However, a language learner familiar with the IPA could learn the correct pronunciation of an English word that was spelled phonetically by using characters from the IPA.

The English dictionaries use their pronunciation guides because their books cater to English speakers who need assistance determining the correct pronunciation of certain words. Because most people are unfamiliar with the IPA, and learning it is akin to learning to read and write a new language, inclusion of IPA pronunciations would only make the process more difficult than necessary.

However, because IPA is a standardized, more advanced phonetic system (using symbols and not just letters) it has been used in more recent British/international dictionaries.

What is the future of the IPA?

Since we know that language goes through changes, we know that the IPA must change as well. The IPA has gone through extensive revisions, in 1900, 1932, 1989, 1993, and the latest revision occurring in 2005. All changes that occurred in those specific years were in the form of additions, thus expanding the IPA.

How and when will the IPA change in the future? In this age of technology, high-speed, and fast-paced lifestyles, the question arises, will the same happen to language. Will sounds and syllables in our language be eliminated, thus causing the need for yet another change in the IPA? And if so, the next time the IPA is revised, will it result in the removal of some IPA symbols?

General Terms Defined
(all definitions courtesy of and Merriam Webster Online)

Affricate - Noun
a consonant sound that begins as a stop (sound with complete obstruction of the breath stream) and concludes with a fricative (sound with incomplete closure and a sound of friction), a single phoneme. Examples of affricates are the ch sound in the English word chair, which may be represented phonetically as a t sound followed by sh; the j in English jaw (a d followed by the zh sound heard in French jour or in English azure)

Alveolar – Adj
articulated with the tip of the tongue touching or close to the alveolar ridge (the teeth bridge), as English t, d, n; gingival

Alveolal-Palatal - Adj
articulated with the blade or front of the tongue approaching or touching the front of the hard palate near its junction with the alveolar ridge; having a primary palatal articulation and a secondary alveolar articulation

Bilabial - Adj
pronounced or articulated with both lips, as the consonants b, p, m, and w

Diphthong - Noun
a speech sound that usually involves two consecutive vowels. It starts with the sound of the first vowel and ends with the sound of the second. For example, the similar sound in "boy" and "toy".
Click here for a helpful video tutorial on diphthongs

Fricative - Noun
a consonant, such as f or s in English, produced by the forcing of breath through a constricted passage, also called spirant

Glottal - Adj
related to or articulated at the glottis (the opening at the upper part of the larynx, between the vocal cords)

Interdental – Adj
articulated with the tip of the tongue between the upper and lower front teeth, as the fricatives (th̸) and (th) of thy and thigh

Labio-dental – Adj
articulated with the lower lip and upper teeth, as the sounds (f) and (v)

Liquid (or semivowel) - Noun
a speech sound intermediate between a vowel and a consonant, typically articulated as a vowel but treated as a consonant, as in the English w and y

Monophthong - noun
a vowel sound that throughout its duration has a single constant articulatory position

Palatal – Adj
articulated with the blade of the tongue held close to or touching the hard palate

Phone - Noun
a speech sound: There are three phonetically different “t” phones in an utterance of “titillate,” and two in an utterance of “tattletale”

Phoneme - Noun
any of a small set of units, usually about 20 to 60 in number, different for each language and depending on accents, considered to be the basic distinctive units of speech sound by which morphemes, words, and sentences are represented. They are arrived at for any given language by determining which differences in sound function to indicate a difference in meaning, so that in English the difference in sound and meaning between pit and bit is taken to indicate the existence of different labial phonemes, while the difference in sound between the unaspirated p of spun and the aspirated p of pun, since it is never the only distinguishing feature between two different words, is not taken as ground for setting up two different p phonemes in English.

Stop (or Plosive) - Adj
of, relating to, or being a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air, as in the sound (p) in pit or (d) in dog

Triphthong - noun
a monosyllabic speech-sound sequence perceived as being made up of three differing vowel qualities, as the pronunciation of our, especially in r-dropping dialect

Velar – Adj
articulated with the back of the tongue held close to or touching the soft palate

For Further Information: Helpful Links - About the IPA
Linguistics 201: Phonetics**Phoneme**....