International Phonetic Alphabet

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Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)[1] is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin alphabet. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language.[2] The IPA is used by foreign language students and teachers, linguists, speech pathologists and therapists, singers, actors, lexicographers, artificial language enthusiasts (conlangers), and translators.[3][4]

The IPA is designed to represent only those qualities of speech that are distinctive in spoken language: phonemes, intonation, and the separation of words and syllables.[2] To represent additional qualities of speech such as tooth gnashing, lisping, and sounds made with a cleft palate, an extended set of symbols called the Extensions to the IPA may be used.[3]

IPA symbols are composed of one or more elements of two basic types, letters and diacritics. For example, the sound of the English letter ‹t› may be transcribed in IPA with a single letter, [t], or with a letter plus diacritics, [t̺ʰ], depending on how precise one wishes to be.[5] Occasionally letters or diacritics are added, removed, or modified by the International Phonetic Association. As of 2008, there are 107 letters, 52 diacritics, and four prosodic marks in the IPA.


In 1886, a group of French and British language teachers, led by the French linguist Paul Passy, formed what would come to be known from 1897 onwards as the International Phonetic Association (in French, l’Association phonétique internationale).[6] Their original alphabet was based on a spelling reform for English known as the Romic alphabet, but in order to make it usable for other languages, the values of the symbols were allowed to vary from language to language.[7] For example, the sound (the sh in shoe) was originally represented with the letter ‹c› in English, but with the letter ‹x› in French.[6] However, in 1888, the alphabet was revised so as to be uniform across languages, thus providing the base for all future revisions.[6][8]

Since its creation, the IPA has undergone a number of revisions. After major revisions and expansions in 1900 and 1932, the IPA remained unchanged until the IPA Kiel Convention in 1989. A minor revision took place in 1993, with the addition of four letters for mid-central vowels[3] and the removal of letters for voiceless implosives.[9] The alphabet was last revised in May 2005, with the addition of a letter for a labiodental flap.[10] Apart from the addition and removal of symbols, changes to the IPA have consisted largely in renaming symbols and categories and in modifying typefaces.[3]

Extensions of the alphabet are relatively recent; "Extensions to the IPA" was created in 1990 and officially adopted by the International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Association in 1994.[11]


The general principle of the IPA is to provide one letter for each distinctive sound (speech segment).[12] This means that it does not use combinations of letters to represent single sounds, the way English does with ‹sh› and ‹ng›, or single letters to represent multiple sounds the way ‹x› represents /ks/ or /ɡz/ in English. There are no letters that have context-dependent sound values, as ‹c› does in English and other European languages, and finally, the IPA does not usually have separate letters for two sounds if no known language makes a distinction between them, a property known as "selectiveness".[3][13]

Among the symbols of the IPA, 107 letters represent consonants and vowels, 31 diacritics are used to modify these, and 19 additional signs indicate suprasegmental qualities such as length, tone, stress, and intonation.[14]


The letters chosen for the IPA are meant to harmonize with the Latin alphabet.[15] For this reason, most letters are either Latin or Greek, or modifications thereof. However, there are letters that are neither: for example, the letter denoting the glottal stop, ‹ʔ›, has the form of a "gelded" question mark, and derives originally from an apostrophe.[16] In fact, there are a few letters, such as that of the voiced pharyngeal fricative, ‹ʕ›, which, though modified to fit the Latin alphabet, were inspired by other writing systems (in this case, the Arabic letter ‎, `ain).[9]

Despite its preference for harmonizing with the Latin alphabet, the International Phonetic Association has occasionally admitted letters that do not have this property. For example, before 1989, the IPA letters for click consonants were ʘ, ʇ, ʗ, and ʖ, all of which were derived either from existing IPA letters, or from Latin and Greek letters. However, except for ‹ʘ›, none of these letters was widely used among Khoisanists or Bantuists, and as a result they were replaced by the more widespread symbols ʘ, ǀ, ǃ, ǂ, and ǁ at the IPA Kiel Convention in 1989.[17] Although the IPA diacritics are fully featural, there is little systemicity in the letter forms. A retroflex articulation is consistently indicated with a right-swinging tail, as in ‹ɖ ʂ ɳ›, and implosion by a top hook, ‹ɓ ɗ ɠ›, but other pseudo-featural elements are due to haphazard derivation and coincidence. For example, all nasal consonants but uvular ‹ɴ› are based on the form ‹n›: ‹m ɱ n ɲ ɳ ŋ›. However, the similarity between ‹m› and ‹n› is a historical accident, ‹ɲ› and ‹ŋ› are derived from ligatures of gn and ng, and ‹ɱ› is an ad hoc imitation of ‹ŋ›. In none of these is the form consistent with other letters that share these places of articulation.

Some of the new letters were ordinary Roman letters typeset "turned" (= upside-down) (e.g. ʎ ɹ ᴚ ə ɥ ɔ ), which was easily done before mechanical typesetting machines came into use.