Linguistish: Eat, IPA, Love, or, the International Phonetic Alphabet

I’ve never actually read or watched Eat, Pray, Love. So I’m entirely unaccountable for any of that. But I have fallen in love with IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s just So Cool.

Apologies for any gushing.

Part I: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta
“No!” cries Charlotte. “That’s the NATO phonetic alphabet.” Which, to the best of my knowledge, is for reducing ambiguity in high-risk situations. But the alphabets have been confused by two of my friends now, so I thought I’d better clear that up.

The IPA allows us to write out the sounds (phonemes) of languages. It’s consistent and comprehensive, aiming to cover all producible phonemes. Based on the Roman alphabet, some symbols are the same – the symbol corresponds to the sound in pay – but others are not – is the sound at the start of yes. Others are not part of the Roman alphabet at all.

It can be used for notating pronunciations in dictionaries, for recording purposes in linguistic research, as a writing system for a language, or to annotate how speech analysis.

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 16.43.21

IPA in action. Thanks Apple.

A note on brackets:

  • symbols in /slash brackets/ are sounds, or general, idealised pronunciations
  • symbols in [square brackets] are more detailed descriptions of sounds, or actual transcriptions of how someone said something
  • symbols in <angle brackets> are orthographic (written) letters

So, <cup> may be said /kʌp/ in RP, but may be [kʊp] in a Northern English accent. As before, most transcriptions here will be in Southern British accents.

If you want to know what the symbols sound like as we go, this is an excellent link.

Part II: Much letters! So symbolism!
The consonants are perhaps (and this is a perhaps, as not all of them are found in English) the easiest of the symbols to learn, as so many of them correspond directly to the sounds you think they would. The IPA chart has a big box at the top with all the consonant symbols organised by place/manner of articulation. If the box is empty, it’s because we could physically make the sound, but it hasn’t been found in any languages yet. If it’s shaded grey, it means phoneticians don’t think it’s possible to produce the sound.

The vowels are also pretty familiar, although they get combined to produce diphthongs and not all letters correspond to the expected sounds (e.g. /i/ is not eye but ee).

There are some extra sections to the chart, relating to the details of sound production, amongst other things.

Part III: Bird? Plane? Supraman?
One of the biggies in IPA is suprasegmental marks. Literally meaning ‘above the segment’, these often extend across multiple phonemes. Examples are stress and tone, especially in tone languages.

There are two ways of showing tone:

  • if contrasts between words mainly depend on pitch changes on syllables, ‘tone letters’ can be used
  • if contrasts between words mainly depend on the pitch of a syllable, tone diacritics can be used

Syllables can also be shown. For example, [‘blɒgɪŋ] has the ‘ on the first syllable to show stress. Secondary stress can also be shown, but WordPress doesn’t like my IPA symbols, so I don’t want to put them in ’cause they come out tiny. Double stress marks denote extra strong stress.

Diacritics are marks added to modify the meaning of a symbol. They are greatly concerned with pronunciation, as in a tilde, which signals nasalisation, or a superscript for a puff of air after the sound. A rhotic diacritic indicates an effect in American accents, as in the contrast between Brit.Eng car [kaɹ] and Am.Eng [ka˞].

Part IV: “Four for you, Glen Coco! You go, Glen Coco!”
As I’ve presented it, the IPA just is. However, everything is there for a reason – the alphabet didn’t just float into being. It’s based on some assumptions (paraphrased here from the IPA Handbook):

  • that some parts of speech are relevant to transcription (e.g. where a sound was produced) and some aren’t (e.g. how quickly someone talks)
  • speech can be broken up into a ‘chain of beads’ with separate, distinguishable segments
  • consonants and vowels are useful categories and they can be described in terms of production
  • sounds above the ‘segment’ level, ‘suprasegmentals’ (e.g. stress) need to be represented

So if you keep these assumptions in the back of your mind while happily jotting down your [aɪ pi: eɪ], you’ll be away!





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