International alphabet

In the late 19th century, a linguist and some language teachers concocted a writing system that could represent every meaningful sound in every spoken language in the world. It is still in use today.

International Phonetic Association [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If you want to study speech, the International Phonetic Alphabet is the only alphabet to use. It contains every sound used in English, French, Swahili, Persian, Tamil, Xhosa, and a few thousand other languages, and (this is the key part) it organises them systematically.

Take the consonants, for example. Consonants are the combination of two factors: where in your mouth they are formed (the place of articulation) and how the mouth forms them (the manner of articulation). The sound [p] (as in “peas please”) is formed with the lips. It’s a plosive sound, also known as a stop: to make it, you must block off the mouth entirely, build up a little pressure behind the blockage, and then release it with a little push of air.

You can look it up on the IPA by finding the appropriate column (sounds made with the lips are called “bilabial” – Latin for two lips) and the appropriate row (“plosive,” to describe the manner of articulation), and there’s the symbol [p].

The other plosives in English are [b] [t] [d] [k] and [g]. [b] is also made with the lips, but it includes a little hum from your voice box. [t] and [d] are both made by sealing off your mouth, but with your tongue instead of your lips. You put the tip or blade of your tongue on the little ridge behind your upper teeth (the “alveolar ridge”), thus closing off the mouth, and then releasing it with that little push of air.

That, then, is the consonant chart. The places of articulation include the lips (bilabial), the lips on the teeth (labiodental), the tongue on the teeth (dental), the tongue on (alveolar) or just behind (postalveolar) the upper gum ridge, the back of the tongue on the middle of the roof of your mouth (palatal), and so forth. As you work your way along the columns the point of articulation moves roughly backwards in the mouth, until you hit the glottal stop at the far end.

The manner of articulation includes a complete closure and release (plosive), a partial closure that creates friction (fricative), a complete closure but instead of a release the sound goes through the nasal cavity instead (nasal), and so forth. Combined with the place of articulation, you get a consonant.

Take the “ng” sound, for example. The place of articulation is the back of the mouth, (velar). The manner of articulation is to close off completely with the mouth and let the air go through the nose instead (nasal). If we cross-reference the two, we can see that the IPA symbol for this sound is [ŋ].

Train yourself in the IPA and you have a pretty good shot at working out how any sound can be made. [ʈ] is a sound mainly heard in South Asian languages like Tamil or Punjabi. On the IPA, it’s classified as a retroflex plosive. A retroflex sound involves the bottom of the tongue curling upwards and touching the roof of the mouth… so if you do that, you can produce it easily (and, by the way, make a sound that is very difficult for most English speakers).

The IPA has symbols for vowels, clicks, tones, and all the other meaningful sounds of language. It contains a few surprises, like the fact that the English “ch” sound is just a [t] followed very quickly by a “sh” ([ʃ]) or that there is a continuum of vowels depending on the relative position of your tongue when you sound them. Understanding the IPA is pretty much Linguistics 101 stuff, so I recommend checking out some of the links below if you want to be fluent in this very handy system of representation.

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