International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

Sometimes you may think of how to understand which sound goes with which letter! In this lesson, we're going to find out how by learning IPA. Let's see.

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

What Is The International Phonetic Alphabet?

The International Phonetic Alphabet, also called IPA, was developed by some linguistics to accurately represent languages' pronunciations. Its main purpose is to provide a unique symbol for each distinct sound in a language. While the IPA contains 107 different vowels and consonants, no language uses all of them. In some languages such as English around 44 of these sounds are used while in a language such as Spanish only 24 sounds are used.

The IPA Chart of Consonants

Down below, you can find the IPA chart of consonants in the English dialects . Notice that those consonants that are colored in red are voiceless and the remaining consonants are voiced:

Plosives Fricative Affricate Nasals Laterals Glides
Bilabial b p m
Labiodental v f
Dental ð θ
Alveolar d t z s n l
Postalveolar ʒ ʃ
Retroflex ɹ
Platal j
Velar g k ŋ w
Glottal h


The consonant chart Of IPA that you have already seen on this page, is categorized by manner of articulation and place of articulation. Click on their link to see what exactly they are.

The IPA Chart of Vowels

In the following picture, you will find the IPA vowel chart:

The IPA Chart of Vowels

Notes About Vowels

In terms of vowels, there are some details that you should know while studying IPA. Take a look at the topics below:

  • The triangular colon: when two triangles are facing each other in an hourglass shape, it is called a triangular colon. It is used to indicate long vowel sounds. For example:

complete /kəmˈpliːt/

group /ɡruːp/

  • The schwa symbol /ə/: This is the most common vowel in English and it is described as a weak vowel. Every vowel in English, if unstressed, has the potential of being a schwa sound. For example:

formulate /ˈfɔːr.mjə.leɪt/

As you can see, to separate syllables in IPA you should use period marks.

media /ˈmiː.di.ə/

  • Using parentheses: The parentheses indicate silent articulation. It shows that a sound is barely voiced. For example:

absence /ˈabs(ə)ns/

  • Diphthongs: When two short vowels are joined together, they form a diphthong vowel such as /eɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aɪ/, /ʊə/, etc. For example:

place /pleɪs/

find /faɪnd/

Word Stress

Syllables in words do not always have the same level of stress (emphasis or loudness). In IPA we are able to show the stress in a word if it is stressed. Primary stress or the loudest syllable in the word is shown by a raised vertical line /ˈ/ in IPA at the beginning of the syllable. Secondary stress or syllables that are not stressed as primary stress is marked by a lowered vertical line /ˌ/at the beginning of the syllable. For example:

carpet /ˈkɑː.pət/

As you can see, a primary stress is shown.

cafeteria /ˌkɑ.fe.ˈta.ri.ˌja/

As you can see, multiple stress happened on this word including secondary stress.

You have to delegate /ˈdɛləˌɡet/ your responsibilities vs. We elected a delegate /ˈdɛləɡət/ to the national committee.

As you can see, first, 'delegate' used as verb and used as noun. this is a good example of how word stress can affect pronunciation.


Diacritics are some symbols added to letters. The IPA has 52 diacritics. They are normally found in French or Spanish. English has a few of them, however, most of them are borrowed from another language. Here is a list of common diacritics in English with their examples:

  • Acute accent: It is an accent mark (´) which is placed over the vowels. It shows a vowel is pronounced full and sharp so the pronunciation is changed. This is generally seen in loan words from French and Spanish. Also we are able to omit them while writing English but the pronunciation remains the same.

café /ˈkæf.eɪ/

As you can see, this diacritic shows that the 'e' is not silent.

résumé /ˈrez.ə.meɪ/

Here, in English, we can write this word with one accent at the final or no accents at all.

  • Diaresis: This is the only symbol that is natively English. Diaresis consisted of two dots (¨) and it happens when you have two vowels next to one another that should be pronounced as separate syllables. However, many linguistics recommend not to use it while writing and consider it obsolete.

naïve /naɪˈiːv/

As you can see, when you pronounce this word, it is divided into two parts (na-ive).

coöperate /koʊˈɑː.pə.reɪt/

Here, this form is not that common. we normally write it as 'co-operate' or simply as 'cooperate'.

  • Cedilla: This accent mark (¸) is placed under the letter 'c' to apply the pronunciation of 's' on that letter. It is used in loanwords from French and Spanish, however, they are usually dropped.

façade /fəˈsɑːd/

limaçon /ɔ̃/

  • Tilde: This accent mark is seen in those words that English borrowed from Spanish. It usually goes over the letter 'n' and combines the sound of 'n' and 'y' together.

jalapeño /ˌhɑː.ləˈpeɪ.njoʊ/

Broad vs. Narrow Transcription

The broad transcription is when an IPA is written between slashes, however, the narrow transcription is when an IPA is written between box brackets. Generally, the broad transcription is more popular than the other one. The IPA that comes between slashes usually has a little more detail than the broad transcription. Take a look at the examples:

paper /ˈpeɪpə/ vs. [ˈpʰeɪpə]

As you can see, the narrow transcription contains many details as possible to indicate every specific sound.

pod: /'pɑt/ vs. [ˈpʰɑ̀ːt]

IPA Functions

There are so many uses of IPAs that you may have encountered before. Here are the most important uses of IPA:

  • The IPA is used in dictionaries (mostly the English ones) to indicate how words should be pronounced.
  • Languages with no written script have often been written using the IPA.
  • In some foreign language textbooks, the IPA is used to transcribe the sounds of languages not written in Latin. In order to learn English, non-native speakers also use it.

Why Do We Use IPA?

IPA helps us to know the exact pronunciation of new words. So using IPA guarantees correct pronunciation while speaking. In addition, IPA gives us a better vision of phonetics, especially how types of sound work and speech organs function to articulate each sound.


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