Quick summary:

English, like many other writing systems, isn't very good at working out how to spell things so that someone can easily know exactly how they’re supposed to be pronounced. And languages that do a good job capturing their own sounds through spelling don't really manage to cover the sounds of other languages, or even of different dialects of their own language. But we need to be able to accurately capture all of the sounds that we hear! Otherwise, we can't say what's going on with phonetics or phonology, and we'll end up coming to the wrong conclusions about a whole host of phenomena.

To save us from this terrible fate, we have the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), invented in the late 1880s. The IPA assigns one single, different character to each sound used in speech, for all of the different sounds that get used in the world. That way, when looking at a character, we can know for sure how it should be pronounced, no matter where we're from or what language we use. And depending on what we want to be noting down, we can either stay just at the level of the phonemes themselves, or we can add extra detailed information. We call this broad vs. narrow transcription. Finally, the IPA consonant and vowel charts themselves actually tell us about where in the mouth the sounds are being pronounced, and for the consonants, they also tell us how open and free the air flow is through our vocal tracts. This might seem like a lot, but once you get familiar with it, the information just jumps out at you!


Extra materials:

Let's start off the discussion by taking another look at our consonant chart.


The chart has lots of information on it! Let's talk about a few things here. First, you'll note that a lot of the boxes have two different symbols in them. These sounds are produced in the same place, with the same type of airflow through the mouth or nose. So what differentiates them? Voicing. The chart is set up such that sounds that don't have voicing in those pairs go to the left side of the box, and ones with it go to the right. So, say, let’s look at [f] and [v] - they're both produced by putting the lower lip close to the upper teeth and blowing air past it noisily, but for [f], there's no voicing, and for [v], there is.

So what exactly is voicing? It's whether the vocal folds, those little membranes in your larynx, are set to vibrating or not. We'll talk about this in the future, but an easy way to check whether voicing happens is to physically feel those vibrations by putting your hands on your throat. So, say, make an [f] sound and hold it for a bit, while your fingers are on your throat. Nothing’s really happening, right? Now, switch over to carrying a [v] sound. You can feel the vibrations in your throat. That's voicing, and that's what the difference is between those two sounds. Since the place and air flow measures are the same, we keep them together on the chart, and  just separate them left from right.

The next thing to consider on the chart are the different colorings. Let’s start with the pink areas. Those are places where phoneticians can definitely say that no one could possibly make this sound. It's never, ever going to be part of anyone's speech, because we're just not configured to make them that way.

Let's consider, for example, the pharyngeal, epiglottal, and glottal nasal sounds. Normally, nasal stops like [m] and [n] are made by totally closing off the airflow through the mouth at some point, like at the lips for [m], or at the alveolar ridge behind your teeth for [n]. That means that the air doesn't have any choice but to go out through your nose, which gives the nasal quality to these sounds.

But unfortunately, that doesn't work for anywhere behind the uvula. If you try to stop the airflow at the pharynx, the epiglottis, or the glottis, you run into a bit of a problem. Air can't get past there and into the nasal passages in order to make a nasal sound. Stopping air at those points precludes it from getting any farther. So making a stop at those three spots and allowing air out are just incompatible: that's why we say those sounds are impossible.

What about the sounds that are judged possible, but aren’t on the chart? Those are the tan parts of the chart, and even if they're empty, they represent places where we could, make speech sounds, at least potentially. For example, can you stick the tip of your tongue against the back of your teeth and stop all the air? You almost certainly can, and many languages do have that stop sound. But it's not specifically on the chart, because we use a variation on one of the symbols on the chart for that, [t]. If we want to show that it's a dental version of [t], we use the  ̪  mark, like [t̪ ]. These sorts of marks are known as diacritics, and they take up a large part of the chart. It’s the same with click sounds, like we talked about in the video, and tones! All of these are in a different part of the chart, though, and we'll come back to them in a future episode.

For now, let's take a look at the vowel chart:


Here, you can see again that some sounds occur in pairs at the same place. Unlike the consonant chart, though, these don't represent vowels being voiced or unvoiced. All vowels should be assumed to be voiced, until proven otherwise.

So what's actually going on with the vowels? The difference has to do with whether you're rounding your lips while you're making the vowel sound or not. Just like with voicing, lip rounding allows you to have two different vowels that show up for the same tongue position in the mouth. You can hear how much this influences the way the vowel sounds. Just make an [i] - that "ee" sound in English. As you hold it, round your lips, and you'll hear how different the sound becomes. The clear variation in a rounded vs. unrounded vowel sounds makes it a variant that most languages use. We can see that on the chart, too.

Just with this introduction, we hope you can see how rich the charts are! They're really useful for all sorts of phonetics and phonology stuff, and also for being aware of what your mouth is doing. Enjoy your phonetic adventures!



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about consonants, vowels, the IPA charts, and why we need all of this. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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