Phonetics - Unit Three - Lesson No. 18

The International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA, for short) is a set of symbols and diacritics that have been officially approved by the International Phonetic Association. The association publishes a chart of the IPA on regular intervals. The IPA chart consists of several charts. Most introductory books in phonetics and phonology present the IPA chart as part of their front matter or introductory pages. The IPA chart can be accessed online through this link: and

The following graph is the intellectual property of the IPA Association, and we reproduce it here for the sake of illustration to the students.

At the top, you can find the main consonant chart. Below it is a table showing the symbols for non-pulmonic consonants. Beside the consonant chart, there lies the chart of the vowels, which also contains a list of diacritics, other symbols and a set of symbols for suprasegmental features such as tone, intonation, stress and length.

The IPA chart doe s not attempt to cover all possible types of phonetic descriptions, including, for instance, the type of voice quality that distinguishes one individual from another, or that characterizes phonological forms of speech. Instead, it is confined to those sounds that can have linguistic significance in that they can change the meaning of a word in a given language.

As far as the consonant chart is concerned, the consonants are arranged in such as way that if there are two items within a single cell, the right one is voiced and the left one is voiceless. This enables the consonant chart to be taken as a three dimensional representation of the principal features of consonants: the target of the articulatory gesture which is in the horizontal side (the place articulation), the type of gesture which is in the vertical side (the manner of articulation), and the state of the glottis (within each cell). The consonant chart, thus, summarizes the major features for describing consonants.

The consonant chart shows, by the shaded area, which combinations of sounds are judged to be impossible to produce by human beings. As such, no language of the world can have lateral fricative bilabial. The blank cells in the consent chart shows that such sound combinations are judged possible to be produced by the human beings. However, no single sound has ever been attested in the languages of the world.

Below the consonant chart is a set of symbols for consonants made with different airstream mechanisms. The IPA recognizes three possibilities; clicks, voiced implosives, and ejectives. This does not mean that the IPA denies the existence of voiceless implosives. It is simply that the IPA considers them too rare to need a separate symbol and would suggest using a diacritic.

The vowel chart implies that there are three dimensions applicable to vowels: front-back across the top of the chart (horizontal), close-open on the vertical dimension, and rounding specified by the relative locations of members of pairs of vowels. again, these are only the principal types of vowels. Other types such as those that are nasalized or have an advanced tongue root, can be symbolized by adding diacritics.

The other symbols  chart represents sounds that could not be conveniently described in terms of the main sets of categories stated above. They include symbols for sounds with multiple place of articulation such as labial velar and labial palatal, and the epiglottal sounds which occur in Arabic, Hebrew and some of the languages of the Caucasus.

The diacritics section of the IPA chart allows a number of additional aspects of sounds to be represented by adding a mark above or below the symbol for the principal features of the sound. Some of the correspond to the provision of additional features or dimensions applicable to many different sounds. Thus, additional states of the glottis are recognized by the provision of aspirated, breathy-voice and creaky-voice diacritics.

The IPA chart provides for the representation of stress, length, tone and intonation. In the characterization of stress, only three possibilities are recognized: primary stress, secondary, and unstressed. There are four possible lengths: long, half-long, unmarked and extra-short. The possibilities for tone and intonation allow for five contrasting levels and numerous combinations.

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