Phonetic notation systems

Jo VerhoevenAllen Hirson
Table of contents

Phonetic notation systems have long been used as an essential tool in the phonetic description of languages of the world and also more generally in other branches of the linguistic sciences. In this article, one of the most widely used phonetic transcription systems will be discussed in detail, i.e. the alphabet of the International Phonetic Association. This alphabetic system is firmly rooted in a strong international phonetic tradition which emerged in the last decades of the 1800s. Before going into this transcription system, however, it may be useful to define the subject area of phonetics, which is done elegantly in Abercrombie (1967) by making a rigorous distinction between the concepts of language and medium. Distinguishing language from medium is distinguishing patterns from their material embodiment. “Language, we could say, is form, while the medium is substance” (Abercrombie 1967: 1). In other words, language refers to the underlying abstract patterns and rules of the language, while the medium acts as its vehicle, i.e. it externalizes language in some form mediating between ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’. Linguistics is the discipline that studies language, while phonetics can be appropriately regarded as the study of the medium of spoken language: “The study of the medium of spoken language, in all its aspects and all its varieties, constitutes the subject of phonetics. Phonetics is concerned with the medium as used in speaking all human languages (…), and as used in all styles of speech (whether supposed to be good or bad, normal or abnormal)” (Abercrombie 1967: 2).

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price.


Abercrombie, D.
1967Elements of general phonetics. Edinburgh University Press. Google Scholar
Bell, A. M.
1867Visible speech: The science of universal alphabetics; or self-interpreting physiological letters, for the writing of all languages in one alphabet. Simpkin, Marshall & Co; N. Trübner & Co. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Catford, I.
1977Fundamental problems in phonetics. Edinburgh University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Crystal, D.
1997The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar
Demolin, D., H. Ngonga-Ke-Mbembe & A. Soquet
2002Phonetic characteristics of an unexploded palatal implosive in Hendo. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 32: 1–15. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Duckworth, M., G. Allen, W. Hardcastle & M. J. Ball
1990Extensions to the International Phonetic Alphabet for the transcription of atypical speech. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics 4: 273–80. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Goyvaerts, D.
1988Glottalized consonants: a new dimension. Belgian Journal of Linguistics 3: 97–102. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Jespersen, O.
1889The articulations of speech sounds represented by means of analphabetic symbols. N.G. Elwert. Google Scholar
Laver, J.
1994Principles of phonetics. Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Maddieson, I.
1984Patterns of sounds. Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Macmahon, M. K.
1996Phonetic notation. In P. T. Daniels & W. Bright (eds.) The world’s writing systems: 821–46. Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
Merrick, P. W. & W. Potthoff
1932A Braille notation of the International Phonetic Alphabet. The Royal National Institute for the Blind. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Mclaughlin, F.
2005Voiceless implosives in Seereer-Siin. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35: 201–14. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Pike, K. L.
1943Phonetics: A critical analysis of phonetic theory and a technic for the practical description of sounds. University of Michigan Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
1948The principles of the International Phonetic Association being a description of the International Phonetic Alphabet and the manner of using it, illustrated by texts in 51 languages. University College London. Google Scholar
Verhoeven, J.
2003Ear training on line as an educational tool for the teaching of IPA transcription. In L. Polka, M. Sundara, M. J. Sole, D. Recasens & J. Romero (eds.) Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences: 3085–87. Google Scholar
Verhoeven, J. & R. Davey
2007A multimedia approach to eartraining and IPA transcription. In J. Maidment (ed.) Proceedings of the Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference: 1–4. Google Scholar
Wells, J. C.
1997SAMPA computer readable phonetic alphabet. In D. Gibbon R. Moore & R. Winski (eds) Handbook of Standards and Resources for Spoken Language Systems: Part IV, section B. Mouton de Gruyter. Google Scholar
Wells-Jensen, S.
2005The Braille International Phonetic Alphabet and other options: the blind student in the phonetics classroom. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35: 221–30. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Wright Hill, T.
1860On the articulation of speech. Google Scholar