IPA and the True Alphabetic Principle

Spelling and Sounds

Have you ever wondered why English has such a horrible spelling to sound conversion? For example, why do the "ou" sounds in "bought" and "though" sound completely different? A lot of it is historical and is not helpful for learning English. Luckily, there's a system we can use to transcribe words as sounds to make them easier to learn!

The True Alphabetic Principle

We want a system that adheres to the True Alphabetic Principle. It states that:

  1. All sounds should have a unique symbol, and
  2. Each symbol should correspond to exactly one sound.

To do this, linguists have introduced several different systems, but we'll be focusing on the most widely used one: the international phonetic alphabet (IPA). Each sound in the IPA is enclosed in [ ] brackets. If we want to talk about letters, we usually use " " or < > notation. For example, the last sound in "saves" is [z], but it is written as "s" or <s>.


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The IPA looks daunting at first, so we'll go through each section step-by-step. It has its advantages though. It's separated into:

  • Consonants (Pulmonic): the sounds that have obstruction somewhere in the mouth with air going outward from the lungs.
  • Consonants (Non-Pulmonic): the sounds that have obstruction somewhere in the mouth, but airflow is directed in a different manner.
  • Vowels: the sounds that are shaped entirely by the tongue without any obstruction in the mouth.
  • Diacritics: small alterations to sounds that some native speakers make in different contexts.
  • Suprasegmentals: sound properties such as tone, stress, length, and pitch that are applied to words.

For example, we'll have a system that takes care of our "ou" issue in "bought" and "though". Now we'll be able to transcribe these words into sounds as [bɑt] and [ðoʊ] respectively. We don't have to worry about navigating through English spelling

Here is a list of all the IPA symbols we use in English along with some example words. Don't expect to master this now! We'll go through piece-by-piece learning how to produce these sounds and how they're described.

Complete and Continue