Thus far in this tutorial, we’ve gone over vowel and consonant symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet. These are the most important parts of learning the IPA. However, there are a few last details we have to go over.
Phonemes and Allophones
I am now going to cover two linguistics terms that are important to fully grasping the IPA.
The first term is “phoneme”. A phoneme is a single sound in a language that means something different from another sound. For example, ”cat“ and ”cot“ obviously are different words with different meanings. We know this because the ”a“ and the ”o“ in these words are different phonemes. We pronounce ”a“ differently from ”o“ because we don’t want different words to be confused.
But there is a slight problem here, which can be summed up in one word: ”allophones.”Allophones are different ways of pronouncing a single phoneme.
Confused? Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say somebody from London were to pronounce the words ”goose“ and ”pool.” Even though the ”oo” sound is one single phoneme, a Londoner would pronounce the two words with different allophones. “Goose” is pronounced by most Londoners with a centralized vowel: in the IPA this would probably be written gʉs. But a Londoner would most likely pronounce “pool” with a back vowel: in IPA this would be written pul. This is due to some phonological processes that I won’t get into here. The point is that even though our Londoner pronounces these two words differently, the “oo” is still the same phoneme.
I’ll give you another example: the word ”cut.” Although we think of the “uh” sound in “cut” as a single sound, I’ve probably pronounced this single sound any number of ways: IPA [kʌt], [kɜt], [kət], or [kɐt] depending on how fast I’m speaking, who I’m talking to, and any other number of factors. But although I may technically say this word in a number of different ways, the “uh” sound in “cut” is still the same phoneme. The variations in pronunciation are allophones of this phoneme.
Broad vs. Narrow Transcription
So where does this talk of phonemes and allophones come into play when dealing with the International Phonetic Alphabet?
This discussion brings us to an important distinction in the IPA: “broad transcription“vs. ”narrow transcription.” Broad transcription is what we do to write the phonemes of a particular person’s dialect. Narrow transcription is what we do to write the exact pronunciation of that dialect or a particular speaker of the dialect.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose I say the sentence ”I went to the store and bought a nice bottle of wine.”
If I were to broadly transcribe this sentence in my own dialect (General American), it would read:
/aɪ wɛnt tə ðə stɔɚ ənd bɔt ə naɪs bɑɾɫ əv waɪn/
Never mind if you don’t understand some of the symbols above. The point is that the transcription above is broad transcription It’s rough estimate of how a General American speaker (like myself) would say this sentence. Now let’s compare this sentence to a narrow transcription of my pronunciation:
/a:ɪ wɛnt tə ðə stɔɚ ən bɑ?t ə næɪs bɑɾɫ ə wa:ɪn/
There are a lot more quirks and variations in the second transcription. You’ll also notice an interesting marking — [:]. This is an example of ”diacritic.” Basically we use little markings like this if we need to express something in IPA that can’t be described with the regular notation.
In the sentence above, for example, I use [:] after [a] to indicate that that vowel is “long,” or pronounced for a longer duration than we normally would.
There are many many diacritics, which are simply too numerous for me to mention here. I’d recommend that when you see diacritics, you reference this article on Wikipedia — this gives a complete list of IPA diacritics, and you can link to other Wikipedia pages that explain more thoroughly what each diacritic means. (Yes, Cranky McProfessor, I know that Wikipedia is full of garbage. But some of their entries for phonetics and phonology topics aren’t bad starting places).
Please note that on this site I will generally not use diacritics for one infuriating reason: as of writing (January of 2011), several Internet Browsers still do not display IPA diacritics correctly. I think this is absolutely unacceptable in this day and age, but that is discussion for another time.
Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about diacritics too much for now. They aren’t the fundamental building blocks of the IPA. You’ll learn them bit by bit.
We’ve come to the end of our brief IPA tutorial. I want to reiterate that this is a very incomplete description of the IPA. What I’ve attempted to do here is give you the bare minimum information you need to know to understand what is written on this site and other sites that discuss English dialects and languages.
I sincerely hope you want to learn more than what I’ve written here!