We’ve all been there. You’re reading something, maybe out loud, maybe even in front of an audience, and you’re met with some word whose spelling is so irregular and confusing as to incite fear in the hearts of native speakers and language learners alike. Maybe it has an unreasonable combination of vowels or some weird consonant cluster that looks to be one dollar sign short of being a fairly secure email password.
With a raised eyebrow and a rising tone, you make a guess or two based loosely on an ever-decaying recollection of primary school heuristics and rules that are supposed to be broken regularly. English spelling is too fickle for such guesswork!
Towards the end of secondary school and beginning of sixth form college, I began to take an interest in English phonology—the study of how our language arranges sounds. While I didn’t exactly go on to become a linguist, I did come out of it with one little skill that I want to share with you today. It’s not too difficult to learn and and it solves this problem. I use it all the time.
The International Phonetic Alphabet
Anyone who's flicked through a dictionary knows about the funny symbols that describe exactly how words are spoken, but few endeavour to study them.
While traditional printed dictionaries vary in their choice of phonetic alphabet, the de facto dictionary of the Internet, Wiktionary, uses the
Of course, many words are pronounced differently throughout English-speaking parts of the world. In these cases Wiktionary usually lists the main ones—US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK—and sometimes others; the entry for about has transcriptions for England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Virginia and elsewhere in the US.
Whenever I’m reading and I come across an apparently unpronouncable word, I quickly punch it into Wiktionary and I’m almost always presented with an IPA transcription to fill that gap in my knowledge. If you use DuckDuckGo, try adding the
!wt bang to redirect your search to Wiktionary. After reading the IPA transcription, I always try to say it out loud to myself to be sure, and voilà! Word learnt.
The IPA is well suited to English, and learning enough to read transcriptions is not too hard. 16 of the 23 consonant letters are pronounced exactly how you’d expect, and there aren’t more than a dozen or so vowel letters to learn.
Most IPA transcriptions on Wiktionary are what we call phonemic transcriptions, so they are delimited by slashes, like /bluː/ for the word blue. IPA notation can be written more precisely in the form of phonetic transcriptions, delimited by square brackets, but we won’t be needing that level of detail.
As I said, most consonants are exactly what you’d expect: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /ɡ/, /f/, /v/, /s/, /z/, /h/, /m/, /n/, /w/, /r/, and /l/ are pronounced as they typically would be in English.
Keep in mind that /ɡ/ represents a hard ‘g’ (as in bag) whereas a soft ‘g’ (as in badge) is written as /dʒ/, so gadget is transcribed as /ˈɡædʒɪt/, for example. This is because the soft ‘g’ is really two phonemes smooshed together—/d/ and /ʒ/ where /ʒ/ represents the sound of s in measure (/ˈmɛʒ.ə/) or si in vision (/ˈvɪ.ʒ(ə)n/). We often write them with a curved line over the top to join them together, like /d͡ʒ/ in /ˈɡæd͡ʒɪt/ (gadget).
Next we have /ʃ/ which is the sh in fish (/fɪʃ/). Analogous to /d͡ʒ/ we have /t/ and /ʃ/ smooshed together to form the sound of tch in hitch (/hɪt͡ʃ/) or ch in choice (/t͡ʃɔɪs/).
IPA really only has 4 other consonants that may not be immediately obvious:
- /θ/ representing the th in thanks (/θæŋks/)
- /ð/ representing the th in then (/ðɛn/)
- /ŋ/ representing the ng in thing (/θɪŋ/) or the n in think (/θɪŋk/)
- /j/ representing the y in yes (/jɛs/)
Unfortunately, the IPA letters for vowels are not quite as straightforward as for consonants. To make matters worse, pronunciation of vowel sounds varies wildly between dialects.
Below are the vowels which are basically the same for
|/ɑ/ as in father||/u/ as in soon|
|/æ/ as in trap||/ə/ as in comma|
|/ɪ/ as in kit||/eɪ/ as in face|
|/ʌ/ as in strut||/aɪ/ as in price|
|/ʊ/ as in foot||/ɔɪ/ as in boy|
|/ɛ/ as in bed||/aʊ/ as in mouth|
|/i/ as in happy|
For RP speakers, /ɒ/ is the vowel that occurs in words like lot and stop. The same is true for some Canadian, Australian and New Zealand speakers. Canadian speakers also use /ɒ/ for words like law and caught and some use it for father and palm too.
The vowel in words like know and hope are transcribed as /əʊ/ for RP and /oʊ/ for US and Canada.
Finally we have /ɔ/ which is found in words like law and caught in RP and some US dialects.
Particularly in British, Australian and New Zealand dialects you’ll often see a triangular colon following some vowels, like /ɑː/ in /ˈfɑːðə(r)/ (father) or /uː/ in /ʃuːz/ (shoes). This symbol just means that the preceding vowel is elongated but honestly you can usually ignore it.
There are a few other vowels like /ɜː/ (RP) or /ɜr/ (US) as in /nɜːs/ (RP) or /nɜrs/ (US) (nurse) but these are quite rare.
English is one language where stress is semantically significant—for example, what’s the difference between /ˈkɒnkriːt/ and /kɒnˈkriːt/? These are both ways of saying concrete, but the first is a building material and the second is an adjective meaning “not abstract.”
Stress is indicated with a stress mark (ˈ) placed before the syllable that should be stressed. It looks an awful lot like a straight apostrophe (') but I promise it’s not. Sometimes you’ll see the same mark written below the baseline (ˌ), indicating secondary stress, as in /ˌɛd͡ʒʊˈkeɪʃn/ (education) or /ˌnɒtwɪðˈstændɪŋ/ (notwithstanding).
Where to go from here
Beside each IPA transcription on English Wiktionary you’ll find a link labelled “KEY” to an appendix page called English pronunciation which features a more comprehensive and detailed overview of the IPA symbols used on the site. This is great if you need a quick reminder. It’s also great if you need to know more about Australian and New Zealand vowels—I haven’t been able to cover those in great detail here since they differ considerably from RP.
Of course, using Wiktionary requires a computer and an Internet connection and everything, so if you want to do this without all that you’ll need an offline or paper dictionary that features IPA, such as the Oxford English Dictionary.