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IPA - International Phonetic Alphabet

What is the IPA? Why do we need it? What does it have to do with French?

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, is a standardized alphabet for phonetic notation: a comprehensive set of symbols and diacritical marks used to transcribe the speech sounds of all languages in a uniform fashion. The most common uses of the International Phonetic Alphabet are in linguistics and dictionaries.

Introduction to IPA | French IPA Symbols

Learn More

The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination,
by Johanna Drucker

A Course in Phonetics, by P. Ladefoged

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Phonetic Symbol Guide, by G.K. Pullum, W.A. Ladusaw

The Sounds of the World's Languages (Phonological Theory), by P. Ladefoged

The World's Writing Systems,
ed. P.T. Daniels, W. Bright

About the IPA

Why do we need a universal system of phonetic transcription? There are three related issues:

  1. Most languages are not spelled "phonetically"; letters may be pronounced differently (or not at all) in combination with other letters, in different positions in a word, etc.
  2. Languages which are spelled more or less phonetically may have completely different alphabets; e.g., Arabic, Spanish, Finnish.
  3. Similar letters in different languages don't necessarily indicate similar sounds. The letter J, for example, has four different pronunciations in as many languages:
      * French J sounds like the G in mirage; e.g., jouer - to play
      * Spanish - like the CH in loch: jabón - soap
      * German - like the Y in you: Junge - boy
      * English - joy, jump, jail

As the above examples demonstrate, spelling and pronunciation are not self-evident, particularly from one language to the next. Rather than memorizing the alphabet, spelling, and pronunciation of every language, linguists use the IPA as a standardized transcription system of all sounds. The identical sound represented by the Spanish J and the Scottish CH are both transcribed as [x], rather than their very different alphabetic spellings, making it easier and more convenient for linguists to compare languages and dictionary users to learn how to pronounce new words.

IPA Notation

The International Phonetic Alphabet offers a standardized set of symbols for use in transcribing any of the world's languages. Before getting into the details of individual symbols, here are some guidelines to understanding and using the IPA:

  • Whether listed individually or grouped in representation of a word, IPA symbols are always surrounded by square brackets [ ] in order to distinguish them from regular letters. Without brackets, [tu] would look like the word tu, when in fact it is the phonetic representation of the word tout.
  • Each sound has a unique IPA symbol, and each IPA symbol represents a single sound. Therefore, the IPA transcription of a word may have more or fewer letters than the normal spelling of the word - it is not a one-letter-to-one-symbol relationship.
      *  The two pronunciations of the English letter X are both made up of two sounds and thus transcribed with two symbols, [ks] or [gz]: fax = [fæks], exist = [Ig zIst]
      *  The French letters EAU form a single sound and are represented by a single symbol: [o]
  • Silent letters are not transcribed: lamb = [læm]

Now that you understand the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet, let's move on to page 2 - French IPA Symbols.


Pronunciation     Spelling     Linguistics

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