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What Is IPA Transcription?

By P.M. Willers
Updated May 16, 2024
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The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of symbols designed to represent the sounds that are found in the various languages of the world. IPA transcription is, therefore, a method of documenting pronunciation in any language using an internationally accepted writing system, and the IPA is the most prominent and oldest of all the widely accepted phonetic alphabets. It was created and published for the first time in the late 1800s by the Association Phonétique Internationale (International Phonetic Association). The script used in the original IPA was based on one created in 1847 by Isaac Pitman and Henry Ellis.

The IPA system of transcription has many uses. In many dictionaries, IPA transcription is used to represent pronunciation. It is also often used for teaching pronunciation to second-language learners, and to transcribe spoken material in languages that do not have established writing systems. IPA transcription is an important tool because it allows any person with knowledge of the IPA to transcribe any language, regardless of prior exposure to it. The process of IPA transcription is straightforward.

First, the transcriber must become familiar with how to recognize and produce the sounds in the IPA. Being able to identify place and manner of articulation in sounds allows the transcriber to write down sounds and words within the framework of the IPA and thus create an accurate IPA transcription. When sounds are transcribed in this way, others can consistently read and evaluate the information.

Where applicable and possible, the symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet basically correspond to the letters and sounds of the Latin alphabet. When sounds are encountered that do not fit within the scheme of the Latin alphabet, a relatively intuitive symbol is used. Symbols are often borrowed from an acceptably stable and well-known orthography such as Greek.

The International Phonetic Alphabet contains a section for vowels that defines them in terms of tongue height within the mouth, and in terms of how far back or forward within the mouth the tongue is. Consonants in the IPA are split into five broad categories, each of which are further divided in terms of place of articulation, in other words, where in the mouth the sound is created. The manner of articulation, or type of sound which is produced, is represented in nine ways in the International Phonetic Alphabet. In addition to conventional consonants and vowels, other sounds are represented in the IPA; non-pulmonic consonants, co-articulated consonants and affricates, as well as diacritics, have a place in the IPA as well.

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