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International Phonetic Alphabet

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English

Are there any languages you’d like to learn? Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew how to pronounce words from any language?

Well, it is actually possible to do so, thanks to the International Phonetic Alphabet! If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry… We will explore the International Phonetic Alphabet, why it was created and what it can tell us about speech sounds. We will also look at the phonemic chart for the English language, which shows speech sounds specific to English. Lastly, we will descibe how to transcribe phones and phonemes.

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

The International Phonetic Alphabet (shortened to IPA) is a set of symbols that represent phonetic sounds. These sounds are known as phones. The IPA is used to help us understand and transcribe different speech sounds from different languages.

Why is the International Phonetic Alphabet useful?

The IPA helps us to pronounce words accurately. Instead of relying on the written spelling of words, which does not always match the way we pronounce them, the phonetic alphabet describes the sounds of words (without reference to the letters of a language). So, when something is written using IPA, it will always match the pronunciation. This is particularly useful for people learning a new language, as they will be able to correctly pronounce the words.

Who created the International Phonetic Alphabet?

The International Phonetic Alphabet was created in 1888 by Paul Passy, a French linguist. It was based on the Latin alphabet and was originally represented speech sounds in different languages so they could be easily written down. It was also made with the purpose of replacing the many individual transcription systems previously used; a single system for represent sounds in all languages would be easier to use.

What are the different qualities of speech?

The IPA represents all of the different qualities and sounds of speech in different languages. These include:

  • Phones
  • Phonemes
  • Intonation
  • Separation between words
  • Syllables.

Let’s go through these in more detail!

What are phones?

Phones are distinguishable sounds. When we speak, we produce phones. Phones are not specific to any language, so are used globally. When we transcribe phones, they are written between square brackets [ ].

What are phonemes?

Phonemes are the mental representations and meanings of the sound of a word. Changing a phoneme in a word can change its meaning. For example, changing the phoneme /t/ in the word sheet to the phoneme /p/ creates the word sheep. Unlike phones, phonemes are language-specific, so cannot be applied to all languages. When we transcribe phonemes, they are written between slashes / /.

What is intonation?

Intonation refers to the variation of someone’s pitch when they speak. Intonation can be used for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • to show a speaker’s emotion or attitude.

  • to show the difference between a statement and a question.

  • to indicate whether or not the speaker has finished their sentence.

  • to add stress to certain parts of a sentence, which can slightly change the meaning.

What are separations between words?

When we speak, not every word will flow and not every syllable will end on a clear sound. So, there can be gaps between the sounds we make as we say them. For example, with the word ‘utmost’, the ‘t’ is often not clearly pronounced. When transcribing, the ‘t’ sound can be replaced by a symbol called a glottal stop, which looks like this: ʔ. It is used to indicate the blocking of airflow, which stops us from producing a clear sound.

What are syllables?

Syllables are units of spoken language that must contain a vowel sound, and sometimes consonants. For example, if we look at the following words:

Book - 1 syllable

Table - 2 syllables

Gardening - 3 syllables

As well as signifying gaps between words, the IPA can also be used to signify breaks between different syllables.

What does the International Phonetic Alphabet look like?

International Phonetic Alphabet, Table, StudySmarter

IPA, 2005, Ladefoged & Maddieson, wikimedia commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Extended_IPA_chart_2005.png

There is a lot of information to take in, but don’t worry! We will simply break down each section and look at each part in turn. We will then focus more on the English phonemic alphabet, as this will help explain the sounds specific to the English language.

The IPA can be broken down into:

  • Pulmonic consonants

  • Non-pulmonic consonants

  • Vowels (monophthongs and diphthongs)

  • Suprasegmentals

  • Tones and word accents

  • Diacritics

Pulmonic consonants

These are consonants that are made by air pressure from the lungs and blocking the space between the vocal cords. All consonants in the English language are pulmonic, but there are some in other languages (see below).

In the IPA chart, pulmonic consonants are classified in three ways:

  1. Voicing - this refers to whether or not the vocal cords make a sound. Voiced consonants are a result of the vocal cords vibrating to produce sound. For example, the consonants: B, D, G, J, L. With voiceless consonants, the vocal cords do not make a sound, instead air passes through them. For example, the consonants: s, p, t, f, f.

  1. Place of articulation - this refers to where in the mouth sounds are made.

  1. Manner of articulation - this refers to how our speech organs are used to produce a sound, particularly how the airflow is blocked in order to make different sounds.

For example, the sound pronounced /b/ is called a voiced bilabial plosive. This means that to produce the /b/ sound:

  • The vocal cords vibrate to make a sound (voiced).

  • Both lips are pressed together (bilabial).

  • The vocal tract is blocked and then air is pushed out through the lips (plosive).

Non-pulmonic consonants

These are consonants that are not produced with airflow from the lungs. There are no non-pulmonic consonants in English.

The three types of non-pulmonic consonants are:

Ejectives

Implosives

Clicks

Khoisan languages are known for their use of click consonants, which can be written using symbols such as ǃ and ǂ.

Vowels

Vowels are sounds that are made with no restriction of airflow, and the sound is dependent on the position of the mouth and the tongue.

For example, when we pronounce the vowel ‘a’ in the word ‘bake’, our tongues are far from the roof of our mouths and are positioned towards the front of the mouth. But, when we pronounce the vowel ‘u’ in the word ‘music’, the tongue is close to the roof of the mouth and is positioned towards the back.

Types of vowels

Vowels can be divided into two categories:

  • Monophthongs
  • Diphthongs

Monophthongs are single vowel sounds in a syllable. For example, the vowel 'i' in the word 'hit' is a single vowel sound that can be transcribed as /ɪ/.

Diphthongs are two vowel sounds in a syllable. For example, in the word 'play', the vowel 'a' has two sounds, which are transcribed as /eɪ/. Diphthongs are also called gliding vowels, as one vowel sound glides into another.

Suprasegmentals

A group of symbols that represent the prosodic features of speech, including

  • Stress - emphasis on certain parts of a word or utterance.

  • Tone - variation in pitch of the voice.

  • Duration - Length of sounds measured in milliseconds (not to be confused with vowel length)

  • Syllable breaks - where one syllable ends and another begins.

  • Linking - an absence of a syllable break

Tones and word accents

Tones and accents are used when transcribing tonal languages, in which the words can have different meanings depending on the inflection (pitch) used. Examples of tonal languages include Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese.

Diacritics

Diacritics are marks added to phonetic characters (eg. accents or cedillas) that show small distinctions in sounds that mildly alter pronunciation.

For example, the word 'pen' has an audible expiration of air after the letter 'p'. This can be shown with the diacritic [ʰ], so would look like [pʰen].

International Phonetic Alphabet table of diacritics StudySmarter
Table of diacritics - Wikimedia Commons

The English Phonemic Alphabet chart

This phonemic chart is based on the IPA, and is specific to the English language. Shown below are the 44 English phonemes:

International Phonetic Alphabet, Phonemic Alphabet Chart, Studysmarter

English phonemic alphabet, SnowWhite1991 - Wikimedia Commons

Transcribing phones

When phones are transcribed, they are written between square brackets [ ]. Phonetic transcriptions are detailed, including many elements of speech sounds to be more specific about the variations of pronunciation. These are so-called 'narrow transcriptions'.

Below are some examples of phonetic transcriptions. They are all written according to British Received Pronunciation.

Pin - [pʰɪn]

Wing - [wɪ̃ŋ]

Port - [pʰɔˑt]

Diacritics are used in the above transcriptions to show specific differences in pronunciation. The [ʰ] indicates aspiration - an audible exhalation of air. The [h] indicates nasalisation - air flows out of the nose.

Transcribing phonemes

When phonemes are transcribed, they are written between slashes / /. Phonemic transcriptions only mention the most obvious and important elements of speech sounds. These are so-called 'broad transcriptions'.

Below are some examples of phonemic transcriptions. They are all written according to British Received Pronunciation.

Pin - /pɪn/

Wing - /wɪŋ/

Port - /pɔːt/

As phonemic transcriptions are not as detailed as phonetic transcriptions, diacritics are not needed as they are not necessary to the meaning of the words.

International Phonetic Alphabet - Key takeaways

  • The international phonetic alphabet (IPA) is a set of symbols that represent phonetic sounds.
  • The IPA helps us to transcribe words in different languages and pronounce words accurately no matter the language.
  • The IPA was created in 1888 by Paul Passy, a French linguist.
  • Phones are the sounds of words, whereas phonemes are the mental representations of the sounds.
  • The different parts of the IPA chart are: pulmonic consonants, non-pulmonic consonants, monophthong, diphthongs, suprasegmentals, tones and word accents, diacritics.
  • The English Phonemic Alphabet chart is specific to the English language and contains the 44 English phonemes.
  • Phonetic transcriptions are known as narrow transcriptions. They are written between brackets.
  • Phonemic transcriptions are known as broad transcriptions. They are written between slashes.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a set of symbols that represent phonetic sounds.

The founder of the International Phonetic Association was Paul Passy.

Consonants are speech sounds created by total or partial blocking of the vocal tract.

A vowel is a speech sound created with an open vocal tract.

Vowels can be divided into monophthongs (one vowel sound in a syllable) and diphthongs (two vowel sounds in a syllable).

Final International Phonetic Alphabet Quiz

Question

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

Show answer

Answer

A set of symbols that represent phonetic sounds.

Show question

Question

The International Phonetic Alphabet is language-specific.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False!


The International Phonetic Alphabet can be used globally.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Phonetic sounds can be referred to as ____.

Show answer

Answer

Phones.

Show question

Question

Who created the International Phonetic Alphabet?

Show answer

Answer

Paul Passy.

Show question

Question

What are phonemes?

Show answer

Answer

Phonemes are mental representations of a word’s sound. 

Show question

Question

The English language uses non-pulmonic consonants.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


There are no non-pulmonic consonants in the English language.

Show question

Question

What are the vowels in the English Language?

Show answer

Answer

A, E, I, O, U.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a tonal language?


A. English

B. Thai

C. Korean

Show answer

Answer

B. Thai

Show question

Question

When phonemes are transcribed, they are written between:


A. Rounded brackets

B. Slashes

C. Square brackets

Show answer

Answer

B. Slashes.

Show question

Question

When phones are transcribed, they are written between:


A. Square brackets

B. Rounded brackets

C. Slashes

Show answer

Answer

A. Square brackets.

Show question

Question

What do diacritics do?

Show answer

Answer

Show small distinctions in sounds and alter pronunciation.

Show question

Question

What does intonation refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The variation of someone's pitch when they speak.

Show question

Question

What are suprasegmentals?

Show answer

Answer

Features of speech that are used alongside consonants and vowels, e.g. stress and tone. 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


All consonants in the English language are _____ consonants.

Show answer

Answer

Pulmonic

Show question

Question

Pulmonic consonants can be classified in three ways. What are they?

Show answer

Answer

Voicing, place of articulation, and manner of articulation.

Show question

More about Phonetics Phonology and Prosodics
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