International Phonetic Alphabet

I am a big fan of linguistics. In high school, I spent a bunch of time reading about linguistics online, mainly on Wikipedia. I also purchased and read a handful of books on the subject. Outside of this, I have no formal education in it, but I estimate that I know about as much as an undergraduate linguistics major would after a year of classes in their field.

My favorite thing in linguistics was always phonology. It’s really fun to learn how other languages are pronounced. For that purpose, the International Phonetic Alphabet is a great tool. It maps out all the possible sounds that are made in any human language, so that linguists can describe and compare the phonetic systems of different languages.

A pronunciation of “gomepage” written in IPA.

Learning IPA opened up a whole world of sounds to me that I had never been aware of. I knew other languages had different sounds, but I had no idea how they were produced or how to recognize them. With the IPA resources on Wikipedia, I could train myself on each individual sound, and gain confidence with it. Before long, I was able to pronounce whole words and phrases in any language I was interested in with some confidence, if not with accuracy.

For me, the joy of IPA is the possibilities and understanding that it opens up. It’s similar to mastering chords on the piano and realizing how much music you could play now, or grasping the core insight behind a useful math concept. I can recall a similar feeling from my early childhood at seeing all the colors in a fresh box of crayons. To me, the different characters of the IPA system are sort of like a box of crayons for creating all spoken language.

IPA is rare where I live, but I have encountered a few practical applications of it outside of linguistics. A friend of mine studied speech–language pathology, which uses IPA to help diagnose, treat, and study speech sound disorders. Some of my fellow music students took a class for singers that covered the pronunciation of various European languages using IPA. Outside of these cases, very few people seem to know IPA or even be aware of its existence. I myself think more people should be learning it purely for the fun of it.

Do you know about the International Phonetic Alphabet? If so, what have you used it for? What else have you learned about that opened up possibilities for you? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​