Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sounds Good To Me: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

A standardised representation of oral languages? Get out of town!

How do you write down a word so that everyone in the world knows how to pronounce it? Using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), of course. If you spend a lot of your time in bars, you may know that IPA also stands for India Pale Ale. We're not talking about those today, unfortunately.

Sorry to get your hopes up...
we're referring to the other IPA. 

We're talking about the use of symbols and characters to represent any given sound that you can make with your throat, tongue, teeth, mouths or lips. Burps excluded... grow up!

The function of the IPA is to represent every possible phoneme. This is referred to as a featural alphabet. Sounds great! How does it work?

In terms of appearance, think of the Latin alphabet... what happens if you start using some Greek symbols too? Well, you'd be almost there... just add some punctuation and turn everything upside-down and inside-out. VoilĂ !

In the 19th century, some bloke called Henry Sweet proposed the Romic Alphabet be the phonetic alphabet to rule them all. It was eventually developed into the International Phonetic Alphabet we know and love today.

There is a certain issue with the IPA. It maps sounds, not words... so what if you say something differently because of your accent? It can't account for that, so you'd need to write the word out for each accent... some people do, but there are so many accents and variants of every language that it takes ages to do.

IPA transcriptions of the word "international" for two dialects
of English: Received Pronunciation and General American.

Usually words are referred to by their standard pronunciation, which is probably the vaguest description you could give. It's definitely a good starting block though.

There's even a symbol for the "I-don't-care-about-pronouncing-this-vowel-vowel", which they call the schwa. We prefer our name for it. Check out the schwa in all its glory as the second to last symbol in both transcriptions of the word "international" above.