The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






International Phonetic Alphabet

See also IPA in Unicode and IPA for English. For other uses see Disambiguation.

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a phonetic alphabet used by linguists to accurately and uniquely represent each of the wide variety of sounds (phones or phonemes) the human vocal apparatus can produce. It is intended as a notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages. Most of its symbols are taken from the Roman alphabet or derived from it, some are taken from the Greek alphabet, and some are apparently unrelated to any standard alphabet.

For a simplified chart of the main IPA symbols used for English see IPA chart for English.



It was originally developed by British and French language teachers (led by Paul Passy) under the auspices of the International Phonetic Association, established in Paris in 1886 (both the organisation and the phonetic script are best known as IPA). The first official version of the alphabet appears in Passy (1888). These teachers based the IPA upon the Romic alphabet of Henry Sweet (1880–1881, 1971), which was formed from the Phonotypic Alphabet of Isaac Pitman and Alexander John Ellis (Kelly 1981).

The alphabet has undergone a number of revisions during its history, including some major ones codified by the IPA Kiel Convention (1989); the most recent revision was in 1993, updated again in 1996. The extIPA was first created in 1991, revised to 1997; the VoQS (Voice Quality Symbols) was proposed in 1995 to provide a system for more detailed transcription of voice production (Ball and others 1995).


The sound-values of the consonants that are identical to those in the Latin alphabet in most cases correspond to usage in most European languages including English. [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g], [m], [n], [f], [v], [s], [h], [z], [l], [w].

The vowel symbols that are identical to those in the Latin alphabet ([a], [e], [i], [o], [u]) correspond roughly to the vowels of German, Spanish, or Italian. [i] is like the vowel in piece, [u] like the vowel in food, etc.

Most of the other symbols that are shared with the Latin alphabet, like [j], [r], [c], and [y], correspond to sounds those letters represent in other languages. [j] has the sound value of English y in yoke (= German, Scandinavian or Dutch j); whereas [y] has the ancient Greek, Scandinavian, and Old English value of the letter (= Finnish y, German y or ü, French u, or Dutch uu.) The general principle is to use one symbol for one speech segment, avoiding letter combinations such as sh and th in English orthography.

Letters that have shapes that are modified Latin letters correspond to a similar sound. For example, all the retroflex consonants have the same symbol as the equivalent alveolar consonants, except with a rightward pointing hook coming out of the bottom.

Diacritic marks can be combined with IPA signs to transcribe slightly modified phonetic values or secondary articulations. There are also special symbols for suprasegmental features such as stress and tone.

The International Phonetic Association recommends that a phonetic transcription should be enclosed in square brackets ("[" and "]"). A transcription that only denotes phonological contrasts (a "broad transcription") may be enclosed in slashes ("/"). For example the English word pretzel in a phonetic (or "narrow") transcription would be , which notes several phonetic features that are not contrasted phonologically. An equivalent phonological (or "broad") transcription could be /pɹɛtsl̩/ or even /prɛtsəl/.


A text approximation of this chart is available at IPA in Unicode.







NewIPAchart.pdf Ipa-chart-all-1000px.png

Comparison to Other Phonetic Notation

The IPA is not the only phonetic transcription system in use. There exist somewhat similar alphabets in use by linguists working on Native American languages, Indic languages, Finno-Ugric languages, Caucasian languages and Slavic languages. The difference between these alphabets and IPA is relatively small, although often the special characters of the IPA are abandoned in favour of diacritics or digraphs in these alphabets, since many typewriters and older computers have no support for the many special characters of the IPA.

Some phonetic notation differs considerably more from IPA. Examples of these include iconic notation, such as the Visible Speech system created by Scottish phonetician, Alexander Melville Bell (Ellis 1869:15). In iconic phonetic notation, the shapes of the phonetic characters visually represent the position of articulators in the vocal tract. This notation is potentially more flexible than IPA in showing more shades of pronuciation (MacMahon 1996:838-841).

Another type of phonetic notation that is more flexible than IPA is analphabetic phonetic notation. Instead of IPA's general principle of one symbol per sound, analphabetic notation uses long sequences of symbols to precisely describe the component features of an articulatory gesture (MacMahon 1996:842-844). Two examples of this type were developed by the Danish Otto Jespersen (1889) and American Kenneth Pike (1943).

See also

External links


  • Albright, Robert W. (1958). The International Phonetic Alphabet: Its background and development. International journal of American linguistics (Vol. 24, No. 1, Part 3); Indiana University research center in anthropology, folklore, and linguistics, publ. 7. Baltimore. (Doctoral dissertation, Standford University, 1953).
  • Ball, Martin J.; Esling, John H.; & Dickson, B. Craig. (1995). The VoQS system for the transcription of voice quality. Journal of the International Phonetic Alphabet, 25 (2), 71-80.
  • Duckworth, M.; Allen, G.; Hardcastle, W.; & Ball, M. J. (1990). Extensions to the International Phonetic Alphabet for the transcription of atypical speech. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 4, 273-280.
  • Ellis, Alexander J. (1869-1889). On early English pronunciation (Parts 1 & 5). London: Philological Society by Asher & Co.; London: Trübner & Co.
  • Hill, Kenneth C. (1988). [Review of Phonetic symbol guide by G. K. Pullum & W. Ladusaw]. Language, 64 (1), 143-144.
  • Hultzen, Lee S. (1958). [Review of The International Phonetic Alphabet: Its backgrounds and development by R. W. Albright]. Language, 34 (3), 438-442.
  • International Phonetic Association. (1989). Report on the 1989 Kiel convention. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 19 (2), 67-80.
  • International Phonetic Association. (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65236-7 (hb); ISBN 0-521-63751-1 (pb).
  • Jespersen, Otto. (1889). The articulations of speech sounds represented by means of analphabetic symbols. Marburg: Elwert.
  • Jones, Daniel. (1989). English pronouncing dictionary (14 ed.). London: Dent.
  • Kelly, John. (1981). The 1847 alphabet: An episode of phonotypy. In R. E. Asher & E. J. A. Henderson (Eds.), Towards a history of phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Kemp, J. Alan. (1994). Phonetic transcription: History. In R. E. Asher & J. M. Y. Simpson (Eds.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics (Vol. 6, pp. 3040-3051). Oxford: Pergamon.
  • Ladefoged, Peter. (1990). The revised International Phonetic Alphabet. Language, 66 (3), 550-552.
  • Ladefoged, Peter; & Halle, Morris. (1988). Some major features of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Language, 64 (3), 577-582.
  • MacMahon, Michael K. C. (1996). Phonetic notation. In P. T. Daniels & W. Bright (Ed.), The world's writing systems (pp. 821-846). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Passy, Paul. (1888). Our revised alphabet. The Phonetic Teacher, 57-60.
  • Pike, Kenneth L. (1943). Phonetics: A critical analysis of phonetic theory and a technic for the practical description of sounds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K.; & Laduslaw, William A. (1986). Phonetic symbol guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-68532-2.
  • Sweet, Henry. (1880-1881). Sound notation. Transactions of the Philological Society, 177-235.
  • Sweet, Henry. (1971). The indispensible foundation: A selection from the writings of Henry Sweet. Henderson, Eugénie J. A. (Ed.). Language and language learning 28. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Wells, John C. (1987). Computer-coded phonetic transcription. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 17, 94-114.


''This article is about the alphabet officially used in linguistics. The NATO phonetic alphabet ("alpha bravo") had also informally been called the 'International Phonetic Alphabet', though these two are unrelated.

Last updated: 10-11-2005 14:35:22
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