International Phonetic Alphabet, Letterforms

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The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)"The acronym 'IPA' strictly refers [...] to the 'International Phonetic Association'. But it is now such a common practice to use the acronym also to refer to the alphabet itself (from the phrase 'International Phonetic Alphabet') that resistance seems pedantic. Context usually serves to disambiguate the two usages." (Laver 1994:561)


The letters chosen for the IPA are meant to harmonize with the Latin alphabet.

"The non-roman letters of the International Phonetic Alphabet have been designed as far as possible to harmonize well with the roman letters. The Association does not recognize makeshift letters; It recognizes only letters which have been carefully cut so as to be in harmony with the other letters." (IPA 1949)

For this reason, most letters are either Latin or Greek, or modifications thereof. Some letters are neither: for example, the letter denoting the glottal stop, , has the form of a dotless question mark, and derives originally from an apostrophe. A few letters, such as that of the voiced pharyngeal fricative, , were inspired by other writing systems (in this case, the Arabic letter ‘ain).

Despite its preference for harmonizing with the Latin script, the International Phonetic Association has occasionally admitted other letters. For example, before 1989, the IPA letters for click consonants were , , , and , all of which were derived either from existing IPA letters, or from Latin and Greek letters. However, except for , none of these letters were widely used among Khoisanists or Bantuists, and as a result they were replaced by the more widespread symbols , , , , and at the IPA Kiel Convention in 1989.

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 , and implosion by a top hook, , but other pseudo-featural elements are due to haphazard derivation and coincidence. For example, all nasal consonants but uvular are based on the form : . However, the similarity between and is a historical accident, and are derived from ligatures of gn and ng, and is an ad hoc imitation of . In none of these is the form consistent with other letters that share these places of articulation.

Some of the new letters were ordinary Latin letters turned upside-down, such as (turned a c e f h m r t v w y). This was easily done in the era of mechanical typesetting, and had the advantage of not requiring the casting of special type for IPA symbols.

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External Links

  • WikipediaInternational Phonetic Alphabet Chart with SoundsLinguistics IPA LAB

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