Understanding the IPA


The International Phonetic Alphabet has been developed by the International Phonetic Association as a writing system that can be used to describe the sounds used in speech across languages. This is important because it allows for us to describe sounds accurately based on a number of distinctions used to separate speech sounds in languages. This is shown in the following chart from the UCLA phonetics website: (You can follow the link to the original chart, which has sound clips attached to the specific letters)


In this class, we will focus on learning the vowel and consonants (pulmonic) charts, focusing in particular on the sounds used in English. However, in order for you to use these charts well, it is important for you to understand how they are organized.

First, you will see that for the consonant chart, the columns are organized according to place of articulation (covered in Week 1), moving from the forward-most articulation points to the back-most articulation points. The rows, then, are organized according to manner of articulation (covered in Week 2). However, these are only two of the variables that distinguish sounds from each other. Note that voicing is also shown in this chart through the placement of the symbols to the right or left sides of each cell in the table. If a symbol is placed in the left-side of a cell, that means that that symbol corresponds to a voiceless sound. If a symbol is placed in the right-side of a cell, that symbol corresponds to a voiced sound.

When describing consonant segments, it is typical to describe them in the order of voicing, place of articulation, manner of articulation. If you wanted to describe a [p] sound in English, then, you would say that it is a voiceless bilabial stop. Using these three variables is sufficient to pick out that particular segment in contrast to the other segments. For instance, if you left out the voicing distinction, you could refer to either [p] or [b] with the description bilabial stop. If you left out the placement distinction, you could be referring to either [p] [t] [k] or [ʔ] in English with the description voiceless stop. If you left out the manner distinction, you could be referring to either [p] or the fricative [ɸ] with the description voiceless bilabial.

When describing vowels, we must use different descriptors to distinguish the different sounds made. Unlike consonants, vowels cannot be as easily described with manner of articulation, place of articulation, and voicing because the tongue does not touch make contact with the roof of the mouth in the same way as consonants, vowels are generally voiced (though some languages do have voiceless vowels), and the tongue’s position is rather imprecise in producing vowels (since it does not meet the roof of the mouth at a particular point, producing the same vowel may have slightly different tongue positions depending on the consonant segments around the production of that vowel). In essence, we must use different variable to describe vowels as being distinct from one another.

When describing vowels, we describe them in terms of height, backness, and rounding. Height refers to the proximity of the tongue relative to the roof of the mouth. For instance, [i] in English is a very high vowel ( if you produce the segment [i] and then breath in, you can tell that your tongue is close to the roof of your mouth because the air feels cool on your tongue) whereas [a] is a very low vowel (you should be able to tell this by looking at yourself in a mirror. Note how your jaw drops when you produce this segment). Height, then, is shown on the table along the vertical axis, with the higher vowels being placed higher on the table than the low vowels.  Backness refers to the approximate location of the tongue’s articulation of the vowel relative to the front of the mouth. As with place of articulation for the consonants, the left is assumed to represent the front of the mouth, while the right represents when the tongue is articulating primarily towards the back of the mouth. Finally, vowels are also affected by whether the lips are rounded or unrounded. In English, [i] is clearly an unrounded vowel (why you are supposed to say ‘cheese’ [tSi:z] for photos) while [u] is a rounded vowel (where the lips are pursed). For vowels in particular, the order that is often used to describe them is height, rounding, backness. In order to describe [i] in comparison to all of the other vowel segments, then, we would say that it is a high, unrounded, front vowel.


Now that you know how to read the charts, you should find it relatively easy to understand the phonetic symbols that will be used in this class. In this class, you will be expected to be able to identify the voicing, manner, and place of articulations for the English consonants, but it is useful to know how to read the chart in case you encounter a phonetic symbol that you do not recognize. Similarly, in the vowel chart, you will be expected to know the height, rounding, and backness of the English vowels, but should find knowing how to read the chart helpful, since you may encounter some symbols that you are not familiar with.


Finally, after learning about these symbols, you may find the following video interesting:


This is an x-ray video that was taken of Ken Stevens. Watch through it once, paying attention to the consonants he produces, and where the tongue goes for those articulations. On your second watch through, pay attention to the vowels, see how some of the vowels are higher or lower than others? You might even want to watch again to notice the velum (at the back of the mouth, above the throat), which is lowered whenever he breathes, but raises whenever he is speaking a non-nasal segment. Personally, I really like watching it, because it reminds me constantly of how complex speech really is, even though we often don’t give the actual articulation much thought.