Our world is home to more than 7000 languages, each with unique accents and dialects, most of which have alphabets that form individual words. But unlike most languages, the International Phonetic Alphabet uses symbols to represent sounds of speech.
Since we’re a little obsessed with languages here at Day Translations, we thought we’d share some interesting facts and benefits of IPA!
Also known as IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet dates back to the late 1800s and was created with the intent to standardize the representation of spoken language to sidestep confusion caused by inconsistent conventional spellings used in every language, as published in the full IPA chart.
How Does the IPA Chart Work?
The IPA chart has a unique symbol for each sound of speech. It doesn’t have letters that are context-dependent, and no letters are used to combine sounds. The chart contains 107 symbols representing consonants and vowels, 31 of which are glyphs used to specify certain sounds. Of the 107 symbols, 19 are for aspects like intonation, tone, and sound length.
The chart’s symbols are based on the Latin alphabet, and since most languages have Latin roots, it makes sense. The IPA chart contains three categories: pulmonic consonants, non-pulmonic consonants, and vowels.
Pulmonic consonants are the sounds produced when the space between the vocal cords is obstructed when air is being let out of the lungs. All English language consonants fall under the pulmonic consonant category of the chart.
Non-pulmonic consonants, on the other hand, are produced when airflow isn’t dependent on the lungs, and these sounds are common in African and Caucasian languages.
Why You Should Learn IPA
You might be wondering what the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet is and why you should bother learning it. The short and sweet answer? It’ll help you master languages and pronunciations much faster!
Need more convincing? Here are three great reasons why everyone should learn the IPA.
You’ll Get Words Right the First Time
What do you do when you’re unsure of how a word is pronounced? You could ask a native speaker, but their explanation might just make things worse.
You: How do I pronounce H-E-U-T-E?
German: No, heute.
German: No! Heute, can’t you hear the difference?
You: Yes, but I can’t pronounce it!
If you knew IPA, you’d have been able to see the correct pronunciation is /ˈhɔʏ̯tə/ by looking it up. It’s helpful to learn the correct pronunciation of words before learning their “real” spelling when first learning a new language. After all, this is how you learned your native language, so it’s much easier to focus on pronunciation first and spelling last.
You’ll Be Able to Speak (and use the correct pronunciation) from the Get-Go!
IPA is a great enabler that can help you learn how to pronounce more than just sounds.
If you were learning German, for example, the first thing you could do is to look at the Wikipedia page for German IPA. The page tells you that Standard German comprises the following sounds:
/b/ /ç/ /d/ /f/ /ɡ/ /h/ /j/ /k/ /l/ /l̩/ /m/ /m̩/ /n/ /n̩/ /ŋ/ /p/ /ʁ/ /s/ /ʃ/ /t/ /ts/ /tʃ/ /v/ /x/ /z/ /ʔ/ /a/ /ɛ/ /e/ /ɪ/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /œ/ /ø/ /ʊ/ /u/ /ʏ/ /y/
You’ll notice that there are sounds that aren’t found in your native English, which means you’ll need to practice them to get them right. German also doesn’t contain English sounds like /ɹ/ and /θ/, which are the English “r” and “th” sounds. If you don’t want to sound like a rookie when you speak German, you want to ensure that the /ɹ/ and /θ/ sounds don’t slip into your German speech.
IPA Will Give You a Deeper Understanding of Phonetics
The English language actually has three different “p” sounds. Did you know that? Just the word “paper” contains two different versions of the letter “p”! the first “p” in “paper” is what linguists refer to as an “aspirated” sound while the second one isn’t. The non-aspirated p is written as /p/ in IPA, and the aspirated one is written as /pʰ/.
IPA is a gateway to a deeper understanding of how the human speech organ works. It’ll teach you what the tongue, lips, and vocal cords actually have to do for different sounds to come out of your mouth.
Learning IPA requires a great deal of dedication and practice, but it’ll be worth it every step of the way. Linguists understand that the International Phonetic Alphabet is the best way to focus on the oral elements of speech across all spoken languages. It’s a remarkable tool that finds the commonality in each and every language!