A Beginner's Guide to the IPA Chart 

With over 7000 spoken languages in the world, the diversity in speech that can be seen worldwide is truly phenomenal. What's even more interesting is the fact that all these languages have their unique accents and dialects, most of which have the same alphabets that form individual words. This makes understanding a particular word in any language quite challenging because of differences in the way alphabets are pronounced in different languages.

This is where IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA system, comes in as it plays a key role in helping with pronunciation. The system uses different symbols to represent sounds of speech. It's an excellent tool that makes learning a new language simpler. 

If you're wondering what the uses of the IPA chart are and why you should learn it, this post is for you! We'll discuss everything you need to know about the IPA chart and how it can help you master languages and pronunciations much faster.

What is the IPA Chart?

The International phonetic alphabet or IPA chart is a systematically designed alphabetic system of phonetic notation. It was first introduced by Paul Passy in the 1800s, along with a group of teachers and linguists from the international phonetic association.

The interactive IPA chart can be defined as a unique classification of sounds according to various aspects, with 107 phonetic symbols and 52 diacritics. Each of these elements represents its place in the mouth or throat to help users reproduce the sound quickly.

In simpler terms, the IPA chart is a universal way to transcribe the sound of almost all spoken languages. Using the IPA chart, users can clarify the pronunciation of any word in any language.

The key purpose of the IPA symbols is to provide a definite visual symbol for every sound when you hear it. It is a great tool for everyone, from AI researchers, text to speech generators, speech pathologists, linguists, singers, and teachers/students looking to learn foreign languages. 

Note: While the IPA chart is designed specifically for British English, the version works well as a reference point for English learners who wish to improve their pronunciation, irrespective of the accent.

What are the Uses of the IPA Chart?

Some of the key uses of the IPA chart are listed below.

  • Word Pronunciations 

IPA charts are commonly used in various dictionaries (mostly American English dictionary ) to indicate the proper pronunciation of example words.

  • Transcription

Another use of this interactive IPA chart is in foreign language textbooks and phrase book versions to easily transcribe the language sounds, which are written with non-Latin alphabets. 

  • Speaking English

IPA symbols are also used by non-native English speakers when learning to speak English.

  • Writing Systems

In many cases, the IPA chart is used to create new writing systems for previously unwritten languages. Furthermore, most languages with no script are written using the IPA chart.

How Does the IPA Chart Help Represent the Different Qualities of Speech?

As mentioned earlier, the IPA chart aims to represent various qualities of speech and sounds, such as vowels, consonants, gaps between sounds, syllables, pitch, intonation, and tone, present in languages.

Let's understand this better by segregating the various elements that constitute quality of speech and the role of the IPA chart in it.

1. Phones 

A phone in linguistics refers to a distinct speech sound. Phones are a part of phonetics, a specific branch of linguistics that caters to the physical production and reception of sound. Phones, when transcribed, are written between square brackets [].

For example, the English word 'spin' has four phones, [s], [p], [ɪ], and [n], so the word has the phonetic representation [spɪn].

2. Phonemes 

A phoneme, on the contrary, refers to the smallest unit of meaningful sound in a specific language. Phonemes are not applicable to all languages as they are language-specific. In the English language specifically, there are 44 different phonemes. When transcribed, phonemes are written between slashes / /.

For example:

  • /b/ - b, bb (bb here represents two allophones or the phonetic variations of a phoneme category)

  • /d/ - d, dd, ed (likewise, dd and ed here represent two allophones or the phonetic variations of a phoneme category)

3. Intonation 

Intonation is nothing but a matter of variation in the pitch of the voice. It's used primarily to reflect the differences in expressive meaning (e.g., stress, anger, surprise, or delight) and can also serve a grammatical function. 

There are different intonations a person can use to say the same sentence, as in the example below:

The bowl of food is over there.”

So, when you begin the sentence with a medium pitch and end with a lower one, the sentence is a simple assertion. However, when you use a rising intonation with a high pitch at the end, it becomes a question.

4. Separation Between Words 

While speaking, not all words necessarily flow, and not every syllable might end in a clear sound. This means there can be gaps or separations between the words/sounds we make as we say them. These gaps often indicate the blocking of airflow, which makes it difficult for the speaker to say the sound clearly.

For example, g/ – "good" is an example of a word that blocks airflow with the back of the tongue against the soft palate.

5. Syllables 

A syllable in the context of the IPA symbol is a part of a word that has a single vowel sound and is pronounced as a unit. Many linguists use the IPA chart to signify breaks between different syllables.

For example, 'Book' has one syllable, whereas 'fe-male' has two syllables. 

The Different Components of the IPA Chart 

The interactive IPA chart typically has the following components:

a. Pulmonic Consonants 

Pulmonic consonants are sounds made by air pressure from the lungs. It's important to note that all consonants within the English language are pulmonic; 21 out of the 24 English consonants are included on the pulmonic consonants chart. 

b. Non-Pulmonic Consonants 

Non-pulmonic consonants in the IPA consonant chart refer to unique consonant sounds that aren't dependent on airflow to make the sound. They're simply a series of clicks and stops.

Another interesting thing about non-pulmonic consonants is that none of these sounds are represented in English. Instead, several of them are found in either the indigenous languages of the Americas or Africa.

c. Vowels 

Vowels in the IPA vowel chart are primarily sounds that are produced with vocal fold vibration. Usually, vowels in phonetics can be classified as follows:

  • Short vowel sounds

  • Long vowel sounds

  • Diphthongs - The fusion of two sounds (e.g., 'though,' 'cloud')

d. Suprasegmentals

The suprasegmentals in the IPA chart represent aspects such as tone, length, stress, and intonation. They typically help when looking at the rhythm of the language to know where to emphasize while reading.  

For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the tone is considered a distinctive suprasegmental. Likewise, French usually gives prominence to the syllable at the end of a word/phrase.

e. Tones and Word Accents 

Tones and accents in the IPA chart are used mainly to transcribe various tonal languages (Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese). These are languages in which words can have different meanings when you hear them based on the pitch used by the speaker. 

f. Diacritics 

Diacritics refers to different symbols added to letters. The IPA chart has 52 diacritics in total, and they are usually found in French or Spanish.

Although the English language also has a few diacritics, most of them are borrowed from other languages. Some of the common diacritics in English with their examples are listed below:

  • Acute accent - It is an accent mark (´) that is placed over the vowel sounds and changes their pronunciation.

  • Cedilla: A cedilla is an accent mark (¸) that is placed under the letter 'c' to give the pronunciation of 's' to the letter. 

  • Diaresis: This is a natively English symbol purely and consists of two dots (¨). 

  • Tilde: This is the accent mark (~) that goes over the letter 'n' the most and combines the sound of 'n' and 'y' together. 

IPA Sounds of English 

IPA sounds are classified into two different types on the IPA English chart:

a. Transcribing Phones 

Transcribing phones is the key element of an IPA transcription. They are usually composed of vowel sounds or consonants, along with optional diacritics. For example, the IPA-chart-based phonetic transcription of the word HOME is hoʊm, and the transcription of COME is kʌm. The phonetic transcriptions of the two English words are different because they are pronounced differently.

b. Transcribing Phonemes 

Transcribing phonemes in the IPA chart makes the use of a restricted set of confusing symbols to capture the meaningful sound contrasts of a particular language. For example, saying "d" instead of "t" in the word bet changes the meaning; therefore, we use separate symbols for "d" and "t" in phonemic transcriptions.

In Conclusion

The key reason behind the high usability of the latest version of IPA chart is its unambiguity, as each symbol in this chart represents the same sound, and each of these sounds is always represented by the same symbol. Overall, the IPA chart is the best way to understand and learn the oral elements of speech across all spoken languages. It is a fantastic tool that finds the commonality in every language.


What is the IPA chart used for?

The IPA chart is used to make users understand how words are really pronounced and offer detailed pronunciation instructions. Text to speech softwares use IPA charts to produce accurate pronuciation of words.

2. Who created the IPA Chart?

The IPA chart was first introduced by Paul Passy in the 1800s, along with a group of teachers and linguists. The IPA chart aimed to create a better system of representing spoken language in writing.

3. What are the components of the IPA Chart?

The main components of an IPA chart include consonants, vowels, non-pulmonic consonants, diacritics, IPA vowel chart, suprasegmentals, and tones/word accents.