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The building blocks of speech (how to use the IPA!)

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Interested in the fascinating world of speech sounds? Then you need to know about the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet!



What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?In the simplest of terms, the IPA is a single sheet of paper! But here’s what it does: it’s a set of symbols that represent all the possible sounds across human languages. The main takeaway is this: if you can make a sound with your mouth - the IPA has a unique symbol to represent it. For example, the click sounds you make with your tongue? The IPA has a symbol for those. The sound you make to imitate a lawn mower - the IPA has a symbol for that. Even though we don’t use those sounds as part of the English language, they’re all real sounds used in the phonetic system of other languages. For example, clicks are very common in African languages, and that lawnmower sound is used in several Papua New Guinea languages. In addition to having unique symbols for each of these sounds, the IPA provides us with helpful technical terms that we can use to accurately identify and describe them. In the IPA, that lawnmower sound that you make with your lips is denoted by the symbol [B] and goes by the technical name voiced bilabial trill. By the end of this article, you’ll have a much clearer sense for how IPA symbols are organized and how to understand their technical names!



To get a taste of how the IPA works, let’s look at an example
The word ‘phonetics’ in IPA would be written like this: [fə.nɛ.tɪks]. You’ll notice that with the exception of the periods (which are used to demarcate syllables), there is exactly one symbol for each distinct sound in the word. This perfect 1:1 correspondence between symbols and their sounds is the real beauty of the IPA. This, of course, is not the case for most languages -- like English -- where the connection between how we spell words and how we pronounce them is not transparent. For example, there are only 3 distinct sounds in the word ‘thought’ -- and yet we need 7 letters to write it in English! In IPA, this would never happen, as the number of symbols used to transcribe a word in IPA will always be exactly the same as the number of sounds that word contains. For example, the word ‘thought’ in IPA would be written with exactly 3 symbols: [θɔt], where θ represents the ‘th’ sound, ɔ represents the vowel sound, and t represents the ‘t’ sound. So, if there are three sounds, there will be three symbols -- easy!

Did you know?


The IPA is obviously helpful to professional phoneticians - but phoneticians aren’t the only ones who benefit from it. The IPA is also quite useful for any curious mind who wants to be able to read the phonetic transcriptions in the dictionary - or any language learner who wants to better understand how to make specific sounds in their target language. Psst - here’s some great news. If you already know written English, you’re already halfway there to understanding IPA. That’s because while the IPA does rely on a lot of Greek letters and other symbols you might be unfamiliar with ([ʃ] = the sh as in ‘shine’), it does use most of the letters from the English alphabet.

How to use the IPA
The IPA is but one single sheet of paper - but there’s a lot of information on it. So where should you start? You should start with (1) the Consonant Chart and (2) the Vowel Map. Consonants are sounds like b-d-g-p-t-k while vowels are sounds like a-e-i-o-u. The Consonant Chart and Vowel Map are your keys to understanding the IPA. Everything else is icing on the cake. Let’s start with the Consonant Chart…

The IPA’s “Consonant Chart” is simply a table


The columns are organized by something called the place of articulation. This refers to where in your mouth movement needs to happen in order to make that sound. For example, the column labeled bilabial contains bilabial consonants. ‘Bilabial’ literally means ‘two lips,’ so consonants that belong to this category include sounds that require the lips to be touching (like b, p, m). The cool thing about the order of the columns on the chart is that as you move from left to right on the, the place of articulation within the mouth moves from the front to the back. So, the left-most column (bilabial) requires movement of the lips (at the front of the mouth) while the right-most column (glottal) requires movement of the epiglottis (at the very back of the mouth). Long story short, the columns indicate the consonant’s place of articulation. But what about the rows?

The rows are organized by something called the manner of articulation. The manner of articulation has to do with the manner in which the air leaves your vocal tract. For example, the first row is labeled ‘plosives.’ Plosives, which include sounds like /p-t-k-b-d-g/ are sounds that start with your mouth closed and end with a burst of airflow being released all at once. If we go down a few rows, you’ll see a row for trills. Trills are sounds like the rolled Spanish ‘r’ or that fun lawnmower sound [B] where the air exits the vocal tract through repetitive movements that happen in quick succession.

Let’s think back to that voiced bilabial trill that we learned about earlier. You now know that the word bilabial refers to the place of articulation (meaning both lips touching) and the word trill refers to the manner of articulation (the lips touch multiple times in quick succession). What does voiced mean? It has to do with your vocal cords -- specifically, whether or not they’re vibrating. If the consonant is voiced, your vocal cords are vibrating. If the consonant is voiceless, they’re not. You can test this yourself right now by touching your throat while you say ‘vvvvvvv.’ - which is voiced and ‘fffffff’ which is voiceless. Wow! Now you know how the voiced bilabial trill gets its technical name. And you also now have everything you need to start exploring the Consonant Chart on your own! But now we have to talk vowels...

The IPA’s “Vowel Map” is all about the tongue


There’s a lot of cool stuff to know about vowels, but we’re going to go over just the basics. The main thing you should takeaway is that the vowel map is organized by the location of your tongue in your mouth. For example, the higher -- vertically -- a vowel is on the map, the higher your tongue needs to be in your mouth to make that vowel sound. High vowels like /i/ and /u/ require the tongue to be higher up in the mouth than, say low vowels like /ɛ/ and /æ/. And the further to the right the vowel is on the map, the further back -- horizontally -- your tongue needs to be in your mouth to produce that vowel sound. For example, vowels on the left of the map (like  /i/ and /e/) require your tongue to be further at the front in your mouth, compared to vowels on the right side, like /u/ and /o/). Last thing -- you probably already know this, but it’s worth mentioning: not all languages have the same organization -- or even number -- or organization -- of vowels within their vowel systems! That’s because every language has its own way of dividing up the possible sounds of human speech. This goes for consonants as well as vowels.

Well, there you have it!
From clicks to trills, consonant charts to vowel maps, we covered a lot of ground. The main takeaway you should be leaving with is that the IPA is a very special piece of paper that -- with just a little studying -- you can use to unlock the speech sounds to ALL of the world’s languages! Now that you’ve finished the article, we hope you have a clearer understanding of what the IPA is and how to use it.

Signing up today will get you a FREE package of fun resources to get you started exploring and using the IPA on your own! You’ll get a copy of the IPA itself, a fun “Deciphering the IPA” worksheet to help you explore and practice using the IPA - and you’ll get access to a digital IPA keyboard (so that you can type the IPA symbols on your electronic devices!)

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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