/æn Intrə’dʌkʃən tu ði Intər’næʃənəl fən’ɛtIk ‘ælfabɛt bai krI’stin ‘tɑməs o’mili/

(An introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet by Christine Thomas-O’Meally)

4EEFD68D-BAE2-4376-9412-77516A14C402_1_201_aI love IPA (aka /ai pi ei/)! It appeals to my inner geek and my wanna-be linguist.

But I understand that not everyone does.

Why bother using it? Why not just write down something the way you hear it?

That might work just fine for you – until you come back to something and not be able to remember what the heck your notes meant. Or if someone says, “Hey, I missed choir rehearsal on Thursday and I don’t know Latin. Do you have your notes?” and you give them what you wrote down and they have no idea what “kihreeay aylayeezahn” means (plus that’s wrong anyway).

IPA is the key used in the most foreign language dictionaries and the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s specific, it’s consistent. It’s not confusing (once you know it). It’s not perfect – languages aren’t always specific and consistent, but at least it gives you a place to start.

Look at this comparison of English vowels using IPA vs. the pronunciation keys used in the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and Merriam-Webster (MW):

IPA AHD MW Sample Words
ɑː ä ä dark, heart, park, car, hark, father
ɑ ŏ ‘ä dot, pot, hot, pop, bob, body
æ a a dad, bad, at, bat, pal, pat, add, cat, fat
ɛ ĕ e bet, pepper, desk,fetch, neck
ā ā ray, A, H, eight, take, date, bake, pain
ɪ ĭ ‘i it, dig, pig, drink
ē ē eat, pee, see, heat, beat
o ō ō pole, dole, dough, oh
ɔː ô ȯ walk, talk, saw, Paul
ɝ û ə work, were, bird, dirt, nurse, stir, courage
ə but, butt, bud
ʊ o͝o took, book, look, hook, cook, hood, foot, good, put
u o͞o ü two, spook, shoot, hoot,goose, influence,
ī ī die, kite, like, light, I, high, try
ou au̇ vow, bow

With the exception of the colon after several of vowels (which indicates they’re longer vowels), there are no mysterious extra marks to have to remember – and a lot of people leave those out, in my experience. (Okay, ɝ is a little odd, but I rarely use that because it doesn’t appear in most other languages in which I sing.)

And when it comes to consonants, there’s no confusion about when you have a hard G or a soft G. One sound, one character. If it’s a hard G, it’s /g/. If it’s a soft g, it’s /ʒ/.

So why should I use it in English? I know English!

Do you know someone whose name you can never remember how to pronounce because it’s not pronounced the way you think it’s supposed to be? Write it down for yourself in IPA and you’ll never call /’bɝ nIs/ “BerNIECE” again (honestly, I wrote it out for myself as /’bᴧr nIs/ even though the /r/ would be rolled if I were being faithful to the rules, but I know that we don’t roll Rs in American English, so it was okay).

I’d like to share the wonderful geekiness that is IPA to others – so starting on May 6, I’m going to go online and do a few Zoom classes on the topic. Totally free.

  • May 6 – overview of vowels and consonants
  • May 13 – Latin/Italian
  • May 20 – German
  • May 27 – French

Time still TBD, although I’m thinking 5pm. If you’re interested, drop me a note in the comments (or shoot me an email) and I’ll send you more info including the Zoom link.

/dʒɔɪn mi/!

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