Phonetic Symbol Guide

Phonetic Symbol Guide

by Geoffrey K. Pullum, William A. Ladusaw

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Phonetic Symbol Guide by Geoffrey K. Pullum, William A. Ladusaw

Phonetic Symbol Guide is a comprehensive and authoritative encyclopedia of phonetic alphabet symbols, providing a complete survey of the hundreds of characters used by linguists and speech scientists to record the sounds of the world's languages.

This fully revised second edition incorporates the major revisions to the International Phonetic Alphabet made in 1989 and 1993. Also covered are the American tradition of transcription stemming from the anthropological school of Franz Boas; the Bloch/Smith/Trager style of transcription; the symbols used by dialectologists of the English language; usages of specialists such as Slavicists, Indologists, Sinologists, and Africanists; and the transcription proposals found in all major textbooks of phonetics.

With sixty-one new entries, an expanded glossary of phonetic terms, added symbol charts, and a full index, this book will be an indispensable reference guide for students and professionals in linguistics, phonetics, anthropology, philology, modern language study, and speech science.

Geoffrey K. Pullum and William A. Ladusaw are both professors of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226685328
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/26/1997
Edition description: Older Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.83(d)

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Phonetic Symbol Guide

By Geoffrey K. Pullum, William A. Ladusaw

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92488-5


This book is primarily intended for use in the way that a dictionary is used. It provides a source in which the user can look up an unfamiliar phonetic or phonological symbol by reference to its form (its shape and graphic relationship to other symbols), and find an entry giving comprehensive guidance concerning its meaning (its recognized interpretation according to various traditions of scholarship in phonetics and phonology).

To some extent, the book can also be used as a guide to how to use phonetic symbols, and we have included a number of charts and other aids to the working linguist or phonetician with this in mind. Nevertheless we have a principally descriptive aim, not a prescriptive one: we explain how the symbols are employed in the literature of phonetics and linguistics, and we do not, for the most part, approve or proscribe specific usages. Likewise, the book is not intended as an introduction to phonetics; we presuppose, rather than supply, a grounding in phonetic theory (though we do supply a glossary of articulatory phonetic terminology which we hope will be useful).

Those who will most immediately and obviously benefit from this book include phoneticians, linguists, anthropologists, speech pathologists, audiologists, language teachers, translators, interpreters, speech engineers, philologists, and students of any of these subjects. But we hope that it will also be of use to those with a more peripheral interest in language who may encounter phonetic transcriptions in material they read.

What we have tried to do in this book, in short, is to collate and systematize information about the definitions for phonetic symbols that have been set down by recognized phonetic authorities, and about the actual usage that will be encountered in linguistic writings of all sorts.

We are general linguists, not primarily researchers in phonetics. However, between us we have taught phonetics and phonology in courses at various levels on a dozen campuses in Britain and the United States, and we have over thirty years of day-to-day acquaintance with the literature of the linguistic sciences. Moreover, we know what it is like to confront traditions conflicting with the ones in which we were trained: one of us was trained in the tradition associated with the International Phonetic Association (IPA) and later learned American transcription practices on the streets, and the other had the converse experience. In addition, we share an interest in typography and related matters that makes us sensitive to some of the minutiae that become relevant when one pays close attention to the interpretation of published phonetic transcriptions.

We believe that it has been an advantage to us to be working as experienced consumers of phonetic practice rather than primary purveyors of it. We are accustomed to reading work in the fields of syntax and semantics where linguists with little interest in phonetics or phonology (or else their editors, publishers, and typesetters) have made errors regarding transcription that clearly indicate the need for a reference work such as the present one. Where a research specialist in phonetics might see no ambiguity in a given usage because detailed knowledge of the subject matter permitted instant disambiguation, we see the ambiguity and the danger of misinterpretation. We have plenty of firsthand experience of encountering materials in phonetic or phonological transcriptions that initially seem obscure or baffling, and this has guided us in deciding what needs clear explanation in a book like this.

In addition, we have no axes to grind: there may be phoneticians with strong opinions about whether '[y]' is properly used for a palatal glide or for a front rounded vowel, but not us. The view of phonetic transcriptional practice presented in this book is not tacitly subordinated to the viewpoint of any school of thought, because we belong to none. We have no aim beyond that of not being unnecessarily puzzled, hindered, or misled by the transcriptional practices we find in the literature that we consult.


In making decisions about the content and format of the book it has been necessary to make many difficult decisions about what to include and exclude. We have not attempted to gather together in one volume every symbol ever used to represent a sound in the long history of phonetics and phonology, or, worse, every font variant or transform of all the symbols that have been used since the invention of printing. Our goal is to provide a background of general knowledge for the symbols that linguists, phoneticians, and other students of language are likely to encounter in reading either contemporary books and journals or older works that are important enough to be consulted today.

Transliteration and romanization are activities which are logically distinct from phonetic transcription, but in practice the distinction is sometimes very hard to draw. For example, only a thin line separates the International Phonetic Association's phonetic alphabet from the International African Institute's proposed African orthography, and only minor additional steps need be taken to arrive at such systems as the conventional transliteration of Russian into roman letters or the pinyin romanization for Chinese. Note also that Kenneth Pike's famous Phonemics (1947) was subtitled A Technique for Reducing Languages to Writing. We have therefore included here some comments about the common use of some symbols in orthographies and romanizations. Such comments are not intended to be comprehensive. Where they have been included, it is either because such uses of the symbol conflict with their phonetic interpretations and a possible misinterpretation of the romanization might result, or because the orthographic use supplied an interpretation which was taken over in the use of the character as a phonetic symbol (e.g., the Old English orthographic characters ash and eth).

Phonetic transcription practices are often inculcated through a complex history of practical experience rather than through a rigorously codified rulebook. Many people will not be able to say exactly where they picked up a given idea—say, that an umlaut over a vowel symbol indicates a reversal of backness, or that a dot under a consonant indicates a retroflex articulation—but will nonetheless feel that the convention is generally recognized and could be used productively to create new transcriptions where necessary. Moreover, the tacit understanding about transcription that govern some traditions—particularly the American tradition—represent not a firm common ground but one that shifts over time like any other cultural system. We have tried in this book to present explicitly two very clear traditions: that of the IPA, which is the clearest, having a recognized international governing body to sanction its recommendations, and a more tenuous tradition we identify as "American" (we discuss these two traditions further below).

Even the IPA position on many topics has shifted during the hundred years of the association's existence, and in the case of our effort to interpret and codify an American tradition, we are to some extent creating a consensus through judicious selection among variants rather than reporting a consensus that already exists. Much the same is true for our references to other traditions such as those of Slavicists, Indologists, etc. In other words, the reader who expects all phonetic practice to be amenable to rigorous pigeonholing according to the categories mentioned in this book will be somewhat alarmed by the diversity that is actually found.


Part of what this book aims to do is to permit the user to develop a historical and comparative perspective on the business of phonetic transcription. Such a perspective is often not provided by a linguistics graduate education. In the interest of the rapid acquisition of a fixed set of transcriptional practices that will be regarded pro tern as correct for purposes of the class, a study of the variability found in the literature is (quite rightly) postponed. But the professional linguist or phonetician will find it desirable or even necessary to develop a considerable tacit understanding of the variability of transcription practices in order to become fully comfortable with the whole literature of linguistics through the years. We attempt here to provide some of the basis for such an understanding, and to leave enough of a bibliographical trail through the references we cite to permit the serious researcher to achieve much more than that.

We have not been (nor could we have been) exhaustive in the literature we cite in our references. But we have, we believe, referenced most of the works of major influence in the two traditions that we seek to document. Where we articulate a usage which we believe to be generally true of another group (historical linguists, Indologists, Slavicists, or whatever), we have cited a randomly chosen work in the area. The choice of these works has often been serendipitous or even just arbitrary, so we warn the reader not to consider us to be claiming that all such works are of equal influence in the linguistic community.

In our research for this book we have encountered a number of works which make recommendations regarding transcription systems which we have not included in the texts of our entries. These range from invented alphabets of gentleman scholars and dilettantes to serious works by linguists, missionaries, and anthropologists who were influential but did not ultimately become contributors to the major traditions documented here. (For interesting surveys of some of these, see Albright 1958, Pitman and St. John 1969, and the edition of Lepsius 1863 by J. Alan Kemp, which contains much interesting auxiliary material and a large bibliography.) Among the systems we have had to exclude are some of the well thought-out and elegantly designed sets of symbols in the IPA tradition developed for the click sounds of various Khoisan languages. Some of the symbols proposed by Doke (1926a, 144), for example, are not covered in this book, not having attained currency anywhere.

We have also encountered proposals that might become standard but are recent enough that their currency is not yet established. Among these, we should mention the proposals of Grunwell et al. (1980) for transcribing disordered speech and those of Bush et al. (1973; see Ingram 1976 (p. 93)). Many of these proposals are similar to standard IPA proposals or are rather crude iconic extensions of them. As they are not encountered in general linguistic and phonetic works, we have decided not to include them in our purview.


The official names announced for the IPA at its foundation in 1886, namely Association Phonétique International, Weltlautschriftverein, and International Phonetic Association, make one thing quite clear: the IPA was internationalist from the outset. Although the original shared interest of the members was the application of phonetics to the teaching of languages, particularly English, a more general focus of interest emerged fairly rapidly. As early as 1886, Otto Jespersen suggested that a phonetic alphabet applicable to all languages be devised, and a first version was ready by 1888.

The principles that guided the construction of this alphabet are set out in the classic booklet The Principles of the International Phonetic Association, published by the IPA at University College London in 1949 and hereafter cited as Principles. These principles are mostly the same ones that guide the council of the IPA in making its decisions down to the present. (One exception is that an early effort to make IPA symbols as similar as possible to their correspondents in ordinary orthographies has been abandoned, clarity and distinctness being considered more important.) They are five in number. We paraphrase them here; for the original formulation, see Principles (pp. 1–2).

1. Wherever possible, differently shaped letters (not just diacritically modified letters) should be used for any two sounds that can distinguish one word from another in a single language.

2. Wherever possible, a single letter should be used for two sounds that are so similar that they never distinguish one word from another in a single language.

3. Wherever possible, only letter shapes that harmonize typographically with the letters of the roman alphabet should be used.

4. Wherever possible, use diacritics only in four circumstances: (i) for suprasegmental phenomena like length, stress, and intonation; (ii) for marking allophonic distinctions; (iii) where one diacritic can make it unnecessary to design a whole set of related new characters (e.g., with the tilde diacritic to indicate nasalized vowels); (iv) to represent minute shades of sound for scientific purposes.

5. Wherever possible, development of the alphabet should be along lines that accord with the phonemic principle and the cardinal vowel system.

It is an explicit attempt to follow these rules of thumb through the past century that has given rise to the IPA's current phonetic alphabet as surveyed in this book in the sections headed IPA Usage. The principles demand that there be as many distinct symbols as necessary, that there be no more distinct symbols than are necessary, that typographical appearance of symbols be taken seriously, that diacritical marks be kept to a minimum, and that phonetic transcription be grounded in scientific phonetics and phonology. They are sensible and carefully chosen. But as we shall see in the next section, these are not the only possible principles that could guide the development of a system of phonetic transcription.


The comments listed under the American Usage sections of the entries and some of the charts at the back are meant to document a tradition of transcription which has paralleled the development of the IPA but remained distinct from it on some points. Among the more obvious points of difference are the almost universal use among American linguists of the transcription '[ü]' for a high front rounded vowel in place of the IPA's '[y]' and the use of the wedge diacritic on symbols for palato-alveolar fricatives and affricates. It would be incorrect to suggest that American linguists do not know or use the IPA, but some conventions such as the ones just mentioned are almost universally used by American scholars, and quite generally supplant IPA recommendations. Because of their vitality and also their essential coherence, we believe it is proper to document them as a distinct tradition.

To accomplish this, it was necessary to induce from current and past practice an analog of the IPA's Principles manual for the American community. We began by considering the recommendations which have been published over the past 80 years of American linguistics and then sifted through them to find the ones which have caught on. These we have considered to be the basis of American usage, and they are sufficient to indicate points of possible confusion.

The American tradition has its roots in the practices of Americanists—the transcription practices arising from work beginning in the late 19th century on the indigenous languages of North America. After the publication of The Handbook of American Indian Languages (Boas 1911), a committee of the American Anthropological Association consisting of Franz Boas, P. E. Goddard, Edward Sapir, and A. L. Kroeber published recommendations for a transcription system to be used in the publication of texts and grammars of American languages (Boas et al. 1916).

These recommendations present a transcription system responsive to principles quite different from those of the IPA. While the IPA sought an alphabet which would provide symbols for "many minute shades of sound," offering "two distinct letters without diacritical marks" for sounds which contrasted in languages (Principles, 1), the Americanists sought a "practical" system for publication. It is practical in a number of respects. It explicitly seeks to avoid the creation of special characters which would not be available in standard faces and fonts, in order to expedite the publication of the texts. It sanctions a phonological approach to transcription, consigning phonetic detail to textual discussion in favor of allowing the denotations of the characters to shift in the pursuit of typographical ease. Finally, it is specific to the needs of Americanists rather than intendedly universal, seeking to provide characters for sounds routinely encountered in American languages, rather than to achieve universal coverage.

The American tradition emphasizes "compositionality" in symbolizations much more than the IPA system does. The basic vowel symbols of the system were patterned after Sweet's, but they were supplemented not by new characters but by diacritics which indicated reversal of backness (the umlaut), centrality (the overdot), and so on. Compositionality is also seen in the consonant system, where sounds at cardinal points of articulation are defined and retraction and advancement diacritics (the underdot and subscript arch respectively) are employed to represent nearby articulation points. Notice also the recommendation of Herzog et al. (1943) that the wedge diacritic should be used as an invariant indicator of palato-alveolar articulation. Explanation of these and other points in American and Americanist transcription are documented in the various entries in the guide. We have made brief mention of some relevant points here in order to give those familiar with American phonetic transcription an indication of our selection criteria for "American usage," and to make those unfamiliar with it aware that it is not a random set of variations from the IPA.


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Table of Contents

Table of Entries
Character Entries
Diacritic Entries
Symbol Charts
The Cardinal Vowels 1-8
The Cardinal Vowels 9-16
IPA Symbols for Unrounded Vowels
IPA Symbols for Rounded Vowels
Bloch and Trager's Vowel Symbols
American Usage Vowel Symbols
The Chomsky/Halle Vowel System
American Usage Consonant Symbols
IPA Consonant Symbols
IPA Suprasegmental Symbols
IPA Diacritics
Language Index
Subject Index
Symbol Name Index

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