How to read the international phonetic alphabet

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[personal profile] jesse_the_k was nice enough to include my previous IPA posts in a list of
Excellent Content Elsewhere on Dreamwidth” and it reminded me I’m not done yet.

Over the first two posts, I talked about places of articulation — how different parts of your mouth can be involved in making the different sounds. These are the columns across the top of the IPA chart.

Today I’ll talk about the rows down the side, which tell us about manner of articulation.

Manner of articulation is how the sounds are made. The symbols on the chart are at the intersections of a place and a manner of articulation, so most of the manners are possible at most of the places (except for the gray squares, which are presumed to be impossible for anyone to ever make).

I heard a linguist on Radio 4 say the other day that “speech is just fancy breathing,” and what makes it fancy is constriction. The manner of articulation tells us how constricted the airflow is. As you go down the IPA chart, it goes from more to lesss constricted.

So it starts with the plosives. A plosive (sometimes also called a stop, to an extent that can be really confusing) is totally stopped. As you keep breathing out, air builds up behind whatever part of your mouth you’ve brought together to make a constriction. So a bilabial (“two lips,” remember?) plosive is a /p/ or /b/ sound; your lips touch completely and you might be able to feel the little puff of air as you say. For /t/ and /d/, your tongue touches the top of your mouth (they’re alveolar, like that alveolar ridge behind your top front teeth). For /k/ and /g/, the back of your tongue is creating the stop. This is also why glottal stops are called that, by the way. The air is “stopped” waaaay in the back of your vocal tract there, at the glottis.

Nasals are next because nasals are a different kind of stop (technically the other ones are oral stops but no one except my phonology lecturer calls them oral stops; everyone else calls them plosives). These are stops because the air escapes through your nose while your lips (for /m/) or tongue (for things like /n/ or /ŋ/ (which is the sound we usually spell “ing” in English) make the constriction.

Next are trills! Trills seem really fun to English speakers because we don’t use a lot of them in speech (some accents, the ones I know of are mostly Scottish, do trill their r’s though) but we are familiar with the noises of two of the three: that /r/ one, which is the alveolar trill (it’s basically at the same place in your mouth where you made a /t/ or /d/ sound to practice plosives a couple paragraphs ago). The bilabial trill isn’t a speech sound in English but it is a sound babies make (it’s what people call “blowing raspberries”) so we think it’s funny but it’s a normal part of words to speakers of some langauges. And the uvular trill is basically “the French r,” so a trill way at the back of your throat and one English speakers like me are often pretty bad at making because we don’t really have trills (in manner) or uvular (in place) conosonants.

Technically, a trill is a stop that’s released but really quickly a bunch of times in a row, so we haven’t completely left the stops yet. And, we still won’t quite, because if you think of that quick-release repeated stop of a trill and then just don’t repeat it… that’s how you get a tap or flap. This is where we get my favorite IPA symbol, which is ɾ. If you’re North American, it’s the sound in the middle of a word like “better.” People tend to think of this as a “d” sound but technically the tongue isn’t making the complete closure for a /d/, it’s just doing that for like a millisecond so it’s a tap or flap. It looks different on the kinds of instruments phoneticians use to measure speech.

If you’re curious about why it’s my favorite:

This is a sound that’s in American English but not British English. I don’t use it as consistently as I used to; it’s one of many sounds I’ve sacrified it to make myself better understood and less marked (less unusual, less likely to be remarked upon by the people I’m speaking to). But I’ve ended up all the fonder of it and more determined to use it as a statement that it isn’t “wrong,” it isn’t due to not knowing how to spell, or any of the other things I’ve been told since I moved here. Linguistics strives for non-judgmental descriptivism, it delights in change and diversity, and the rest of the world could aspire to a little more of that itself. This is what ɾ symbolizes for me these days.

Plus it’s now an old joke of
[personal profile] diffrentcolours and mine that Alveolar Tap would be a good name for a linguists’ pub. (Imagine all the cool panel studies and formant comparisons that could happen there!)

Once we finally leave the world of complete constrictions, we next get to the fricatives. So there’s some friction, some turbulence in the air flow. Fricative is a good word because it starts and ends with fricative sounds. Ffffricativvv. If you look at the IPA chart, you see that fricatives are the only manner of articulation that happens at all the different places and a lot of those appear in English; the /f/ and /v/ in fricative, the two “th” sounds /θ/ and /ð/ (respectively, the sounds at the beginning of “thin” and “then”), /s/ and /z/, /ʃ/ (“sh”) and /ʒ/ (which is like the sound in the middle of “vision”), and /h/ which is another glottal sound.

The least constricted kinds of consonants are approximants. Vowels are even less constricted, and some approximants like /j/ (which makes a sound we usually spell “y” in English) are sometimes called semi-vowels. If like me you learned in like first grade that the vowels are “A, E, I, O, U” and then learned that they’re “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y,” you already sorta learned about semi-vowels (I mean, I think this is much more about how terrible English orthography is, but that’d be a whole nother set of posts.) So sounds like that /j/ and like /l/ are approximants. They require less precision in the parts of your mouth and where they are than fricatives do.

So now that you know what all the places and manners of articulation are, you can look at any symbol on the chart and figure out how it works. Remember, if there are two symbols in the same square, the left one is voiced and the right is voiceless. So if you can’t remember which one /ð/ is, you can check that it’s dental, that it’s a fricative, and that it’s voiced. And you can always check your guesses on Seeing Speech, remember.

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