IPA Overview
excerpts from the works of
Dr. Micheal Crafton

Department of English
State University of West Georgia

Carrollton, Georgia
(Spring 2000)

We use about 35 sounds to do all the work of language in speech. These sounds are produced in ways that are describable and predictable and common in human languages, but the distribution of the sounds that count make English unique.

The IPA and the way sounds are articulated.


The IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet and you will get to know and maybe even love this alphabet. It is absolutely essential for our work. This alphabet was developed in the late 19th century and has become fairly stable in the latter part of the 20th century.  

The IPA is necessary as a uniform, non-culturally specific form of transcribing sounds. Spelling in any language is messy and in English, it's very messy. The dramatist George Bernard Shaw used to joke that according to English spelling he could spell fish as follows: ghoti, the gh from enough, the o from women, and the ti from nation, thus ghoti.

To download your own copy of a quick and rough and ready IPA, go to the following site of the International Association.


http://www2.arts.gla.ac.uk/IPA/fullchart.html (download the chart)

Organs of Speech:

The articulators of human speech... It is often said that speech is created by a moving column of air coming from diaphram and lungs through the articulators and it is the manipulation of the articulators that creates what we recognize as consonants and vowels.

You might have a look at the following web site for a short course in phonetics:

Phonologists say that English syllables are made of at least one vocoid (or vowel) and at least one consoid (or consonant). The vowel is created by opening the flow of air and voicing; the consonant is created by restricting the air flow and either voicing or not.

We describe consonants by the place of articulation. For example, the consonants b and p are made by the lips restricting the flow of air; therefore, the place of articulation is the lips. They are bilabial consonants.

The manner of articulation refers to the way the flow is restricted and whether or not voicing occurs. “b” and “p” are made by stopping the flow of air, hence stops. “b” is made with voicing and “p” is not. In fact, the only difference between the two is that one is voiced and one is not. But we say that difference is phonemic because the difference creates different words. Bat and pat are two different words in English, yet the only difference in articulation is the voicing of the initial consonant in bat.


As you can see, describing the articulation of vowels is a slightly different matter than describing consonants. Vowels are all voiced, so that is not a distinctive issue. Rather, we describe vowels by the position of the tongue and the lips.

Rounding is the easiest concept to understand, so let’s dispatch with it first. You round your lips when you pronounce the vowel o, as in “Oh! and when you pronounce the vowel in shoot versus the vowel in shot, which is not rounded. Try it. Pronounce the two while looking in the mirror and notice the rounding.

Placement is a little more difficult. The space in your mouth is divided into six regions: front, central, back (the horizontal axis), high, mid, low (the vertical axis).

If you x-rayed your mouth while pronouncing the vowels listed on the chart, your tongue would move to those areas in your mouth that roughly correspond to the regions on the chart.


These strange critters, pronounced “diff-thongs” and not “dip-thongs” as you may hear, are combinations of two vowels pronounced in a sequence so close together that they create essentially one phoneme, or significant unit of meaning. One of the most characteristic vowels in English is the sound of the pronoun “I.” This sound is not the vowel [i], which is the sound in “she,” “free,” and “me,” but rather the sound [aI], which as you can see by the IPA symbols is a combination of two vowels.


The process of describing consonants and vowels and diphthongs is focused on the segments of sound; however, there is an important aspect of the sound system that resides above the level of the segment. This aspect is called appropriately a supersegmental or supra-segmental. Stress or accent is one of the most commonly understood supersegmentals the importance of which is very easy to demonstrate.

Take the word “perfect.” If the stress is on the first syllable, it is an adjective; if the stress is on the second syllable, it’s a verb. A PER-fect day versus to per-FECT the world.

Sound Change

The gradual and systematic change in sound in language is a necessary condition for the possibility of language change. This section classifies some of the major types of change and some speculations on the causes of change.


Assimilation (sounds merged together): What’s up to whus sup.

Dissimilation (sounds pulled apart): cupboard (pronounced cubburd) to cup-board

Ellipsis (sounds taken out): whus sup to sup.

Intrusion (sounds forced in): athlete to ath-uh-lete; chimney to chimbley.

Metathesis (reversal of sounds: ask to aks)

There are many other types but these are the basics.  

Causes of Sound Change

Which of these types of sound change, do you think makes sense and accounts for change around you?


The phoneme is a very important theoretical component of phonology. The idea is that our minds organize sounds into discreet patterns that we can use over and over to make words. If our language does not use a sound, then it is not phonemic or distinctive; it’s not a phoneme.

By changing the initial phoneme in otherwise identical words, we can determine that a sound is phonemic, for example, “pat” and “bat.” So we know that p and b are phonemes; they are distinctive. However, “bat” versus “bbbbat” does not make two different words; that is, it is not phonemic or distinctive, yet in some languages a vibrative or fricative b is phonemic.

Here is another example, the “a” sound in “past” can be pronounced with an “ah” sound as well as the commonly used [æ] sound. So we may heard Senator Kennedy pronounce something about the “pahst.” Changing the vowel sound does not change the word; it’s still “past,” so the different a is not phonemic.

Rather, we say the different “a” sound, like the different “b” sound, is an allophone.