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Phonetics & Phonology 101: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)


Phonetics and phonology are two essential parts of linguistic competence. While both are related to the processes of production and perception of language sounds, they differ in their approach and goals. Phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds, i.e. articulatory, acoustic, and perceptual, and aims at a scientific description and classification of all sounds attested in human languages. Phonology, on the other hand, is more focused on how these sounds are organized in single languages, i.e., how they constitute their phonological inventory through distinctive oppositions, and how they relate to morpho-syntax and semantics. This course aims at introducing the reader to both disciplines, focusing on the following aspects: a) the basic concepts of phonetics and phonology, their interrelation, and differences; b) the use of IPA to write phonetic and phonological transcriptions; c) the major issues and debates in modern phonological theory.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

  1. Phonetics & Phonology 101: The Role of Phonetics and Phonology in Linguistics.

  2. Phonetics & Phonology 101: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

  3. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology and its Relation with Language Theory

  4. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Generative Phonology and The Sound Pattern of English

  5. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonological Opacity, a Debate in Modern Phonology

  6. Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology in Language Acquisition

Phonetics & Phonology 101: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The first chapter in this series concerned the role of phonetics and phonology in linguistics, underlining the fact that both are related to the physical aspects of language signs, both in articulation and perception. The problems surrounding such scientific work have also been highlighted, in particular the search for an objective way to describe the phonetic sequences in the languages through a standardised and unambiguous alphabet. Such an instrument now exists in contemporary linguistics, thanks to the efforts of dedicated scholars.

The History of IPA

The Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans had their own alphabets, and they transmitted a series of reflections and descriptions of their own languages through grammar. But Western language speculations remained very limited compared to that which characterized ancient India (Figure 1). In phonetics, Greeks and Romans were not interested in accurately describing articulatory aspects of sound. However, there is a long list of tractates on phonetics in Indian tradition which dates to the 9th century BC. Indian grammarians were the first to treat the sounds of the language scientifically, giving a relevant description for each of them according to sound classes, and based on criteria somewhat similar to modern ones. According to Indian grammarians, the glottis, lungs, and nasal cavity are responsible for the main distinction of sounds: voiced – voiceless, aspirated – unaspirated, nasal and not nasal. Thus, the result is a system of classification which includes, for each entry, five different phonemes, exemplified by the following series: /b/, /p/, /bh/, /ph/, /m/. Inside the vocal tract, articulatory organs are described from back to front and ending with the lips; four different degrees of obstruction are distinguished: total obstruction (occlusives and nasals), partial obstruction (fricatives), semi-vocalic obstruction, no obstruction (vowels). Sounds are classified according to the place of articulation (sthāna) and the active articulator (karaṇa) (Allen 1953, Robins 1997). While Indian grammarians were concerned with the description of specific languages like Sanskrit and, therefore, were far more interested in the phonological aspect of language rather than the phonetic one, this kind of classification is the most accurate in the ancient world and it is impressive, even compared with the more advanced system that the linguistic community adopts today.

Panini Sage Idol at Panini Tapobhumi, Arghakhanchi
Figure 1. Panini Sage Idol at Panini Tapobhumi, Arghakhanchi.

When Western scholars started to pay attention to ancient Indian languages such as Sanskrit, they discovered an entire grammatical tradition which approached language in an impressively precise way. Although European explorers had documented their contact with Sanskrit earlier, it was only around 1780 that Western linguistics started paying attention to Indian linguistic tradition. In 1786 Sir William Jones claimed Sanskrit to be strictly related to European ancient languages like Greek, Latin, and Gothic, thus leading to the development of Indo-European linguistics. In addition, this new focus on Sanskrit and Indian linguistics led to the study of ancient Indian grammatical tractates, which played a fundamental role in the development of phonetics in the modern sense. Indeed, British scholars had spotted the problems created by European orthographic systems, which seemed not transparent at all in terms of phonetic accuracy and description whereas Eastern writing systems, like devánāgarī for Sanskrit, were far more coherent and could rely on an attentive tradition of phonetic description. It was only in 1889, more than a century after Jones’ report, that the first edition of IPA was published, with the goal of providing scholars with a system of categorization of any possible sound attestable in human languages. Thanks to this significant work, today IPA is an indispensable instrument for phoneticians, phonologists, and linguists concerned with language description.

IPA: How It Works

The main difference between vowels and consonants was explained in the first chapter, both in their articulatory and classificatory aspects. Vowels are produced by a free flow of air from the lungs, while consonants require the use of articulatory organs. Vowels are classified according to the position and the height of the tongue, while consonants are classified according to the kind and place of articulation, and its level of sonority. Thus, each sound is represented by its own symbol. Phonetic transcription in IPA uses square brackets (see Figure 2). Additional symbols like ‘ˈ’ and ‘ː’ indicate respectively the position of the syllabic accent and the sound’s length.

International Phonetic Alphabet
Figure 2. Phonetic transcription of IPA according to IPA.

Figure 3 shows the pulmonic consonants as represented in IPA. Notice that the column on the left indicates the kind of articulation, while the first line above indicates the place of articulation. Each cell is then divided into two sides, the left one indicating the voiceless consonant and the right one indicating the voiced consonant. It is not necessary that each consonant has its voiceless or voiced counterpart, i.e., there is no ‘voiceless bilabial nasal’.

Pulmonic consonants.
Figure 3. Pulmonic consonants in the IPA chart.

Figure 4 shows the vowels as represented in IPA. The representation reflects the criteria explained previously: the height and position of the tongue in the vocal tract and roundness (if present). The entire set of IPA symbols is not necessary when considering single languages like Italian, Japanese, or English. Each language makes use of a part of the possible sounds. The next paragraph focuses on the phonetic transcription of Standard English.

Vowels IPA
Figure 4. Vowels in the IPA chart.

A Phonetic Inventory for British English

The English language is characterised, like other languages, by a variety of different possible pronunciations, according to geographical and social variability. This paragraph is a short guide on how to transcript English with IPA and refers to what is called Received Pronunciation, which is considered to be the standard and most prestigious form of spoken British English. The following is a table of the vowels of English (Graffi & Scalise 2002, Radford et al. 1999):

front central back

high [iː] [u:]

[ɪ] [ʊ]

mid [e] [εː] [ə] [ʌ] [ɔː]


low [ɑː] [ɑ]

[iː] as in beat, believe;

[ɪ] as in bit, pin;

[e] as in they, reign;

[εː] as in bet, reception, says;

[æ] as in bat, man, gas;

[uː] as in boot, who, through;

[ʊ] as in put, butcher, could;

[ɔː] as in bought, caught;

[ʌ] as in but, cut;

[ɑː] as in card, master;

[ɑ] as in cod, pot;

[ə] as in among, butter.

In addition, English has a series of diphthongs: sequences of vowels which are pronounced with a unique flow of air. They are: [əʊ] as in low, [aʊ] as in loud, [aɪ] as in light, [eɪ] as in lane, [ɔɪ] loin, [ɪə] as in leer, [εə] lair, [ʊə] as in lure.

The table below includes the consonants of English, and comprehends the semiconsonants or semivowels [j] and [w]:

labial labiodental interdental alveolar palate-alveol. velar glottidal

occlusive [p] [b] [t] [d] [k] [g] [ʔ]

fricative [f] [v] [θ] [ð] [s] [z] [ʃ] [ʒ] [h]

affricate [tʃ] [dʒ]

nasal [m] [n] [ŋ]

lateral [l] vibrant [r]

semicons. [j] [w]

[p] as in pit, tip;

[b] as in ball, globe;

[t] as in tag, pat;

[d] as in dip, card;

[k] as in kit, scoot;

[g] as in guard, longer;

[ʔ] as in Batman, Manhattan;

[f] as in foot, coffee;

[v] as in vest, dove;

[θ] as in thing, wrath;

[ð] as in the, mother;

[s] as in soap, psychology;

[z] as in zip, kisses;

[ʃ] as in shy, nation;

[ʒ] as in measure, vision;

[h] as in hat, hole;

[tʃ] as in choke, match;

[dʒ] as in joke, region;

[m] as in lamb, smack;

[n] as in nap, snow;

[ŋ] as in sing, finger;

[l] as in leaf, feel;

[r] as in fear, Harris;

[j] as in you, yell;

[w] as in water, weapon.

Here is a transcription of an entire sentence:

[ðɪs ɪz ə trænsˈkrɪpʃᵊn ɒv ən ɪnˈtaɪə ˈsɛntəns əˈkɔːdɪŋ tuː ði ˌɪntəˈnæʃənl fəʊˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəbɛt]

English Varieties: How Speakers (and Linguists) Deal with Phonetic Differences

Although we presented a phonetic description of both the vowels and the consonants of English, pronunciation in English, like many other languages, is not uniform. Neither between different countries (with American English differing from Australian, South African or British English) nor in the same country (Nothern American English is different from Southern American English). If considering British accents, the accent referred to as Cockney is characterised by several differences in terms of phonetic realization. Some of these differences are listed below (Wright 1981):

- T-glottalisation: /t/ may be realized as the glottal stop [ʔ] like in [ˈbɛʔə] or [ˈwɔːʔə];

- Th-fronting: /θ/ can be realized as[f] in a wide range of cases, like in [fæŋk juː];

- H-dropping: /h/ may be deleted in all positions.

How do speakers of different varieties communicate and understand each other? One cannot answer this question relying just on phonetics. Phonetics only suggests that, given the high degree of variability in pronouncing sounds, communication should be very hard, if not impossible. There are cases in which this conclusion is true, but in general two speakers of different varieties of English may communicate effectively, and not only because both plausibly have some knowledge of the standard language. As it has been underlined, phonetics captures only the surface of languages. Sounds may differ significantly, but keep in mind that a) those sounds may be just variations of the same phonemes across the varieties and b) speakers rely not just on phonetic-phonological features, but also on a large set of information about grammar (syntax, morphology, lexicon). This explains how complex language variation is and what are the criteria for distinguishing among different languages. Two languages are considered different when the speakers of both cannot understand each other or only to a limited extent. The reasons behind this unintelligibility are those considered above: pronunciation and grammar.


Even before the birth of linguistics as a scientific discipline, analyses of languages have been a focus of intellectual inquiry for philosophers and grammarians. Although all the ancient civilizations have produced tractates which dealt with the description of languages (this is true for Indians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, and others), their theories on the nature of language and, consequently, their attempt to give a full description of the main features of it, was very limited. An exception to this, in particular concerning the phonetic and phonological aspects of language, is represented by the Indian grammatical tradition. Some prominent grammarians, indeed, described their own languages in terms which are not much dissimilar to those which were adopted at the end of the 19th century in the field of phonetics. The discovery of such ancient yet impressively accurate works gave a significant boost to the search for an optimal way of transcribing languages according to a unique and uniform alphabet in the scientific community. This goal was soon achieved thanks to the effort of European, and in particular British, phoneticians, who introduced the alphabet which is still known as IPA. This alphabet has been adopted to describe phones in Standard English, trying to give the reader not only an instrument to see their own native languages differently but possibly a new way to look at different languages and language variations. The next chapter will focus on phonology and how it is relevant to linguistic theory, namely how it describes the way languages use a system of sounds with grammatical features.

Bibliographical References

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Federico Piersigilli

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