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Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

11 Fun Facts About the International Phonetic Alphabet

Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every writing system represents speech a little differently, and no system is completely faithful to how words are actually pronounced. For over a century, the International Phonetic Alphabet has tried to remedy this situation by providing a way to accurately represent the pronunciation of any spoken language. Here are 11 fun facts about the IPA.

1. ITS ORIGINAL PURPOSE WAS TO MAKE TEACHING FOREIGN LANGUAGES EASIER.

When you learn a foreign language, you're naturally drawn to pronounce the letters you see in the written form as you would in your own language. A language teacher named Paul Passy thought it would be better to start with a purely phonetic writing system in order to avoid this contamination. He founded the International Phonetic Association in Paris in 1886.

2. IT EXPANDED TO INCLUDE MORE AND MORE LANGUAGES.

The original version could handle the sounds in French, English, and German. Later revisions added symbols for pharyngeals (e.g., [ʕ], used in Arabic), retroflex consonants ([ɖ], used in Hindi), clicks ([ǂ], used in Khoisan languages), and a range of other speech sounds. Now it can handle nearly any spoken language.

3. IT GREW FROM ABOUT 40 TO ALMOST 200 SYMBOLS.

The first version of the IPA had 30 consonants and 13 vowels plus a few diacritics. There are now more than double the number of consonants and vowels, plus diacritics, tone markers, and other combining symbols that allow the potential for thousands of different sounds to be represented.

4. IT CAN REPRESENT A KISS, A RASPBERRY, OR VOCAL FRY.

Because bilabial clicks ([ʘ] a kissing sound), bilabial trills ([ʙ] blowing a raspberry, but without the tongue sticking out), and creaky voiced articulations ([a̰] “vocal fry”) show up as speech sounds in some languages, they get IPA symbols too.

5. UNTIL 1971 ARTICLES IN THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ASSOCIATION’S JOURNAL WERE PUBLISHED IN IPA.

The original name of the International Phonetic Association was Dhi Fonètik Tîtcerz' Asóciécon and its journal was titled Dhi Fonètik Tîtcer. In 1889, the journal was renamed Le Maître Phonétique, but as much as possible articles were still published in the phonetic alphabet. That practice ended in 1971 when the journal was renamed the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Above, you can see the beginning of an article in French on "Ecriture Phonétique Simplifie," or simplified phonetic writing.

6. THERE WERE SPECIAL PHONETIC SYMBOL TYPEWRITERS FOR WRITING IN IPA.

To make the task of writing in the phonetic alphabet more convenient, typewriters were modified or produced especially for this task. They could be pricey, though: Models publicized in a 1912 supplement to Le Maître Phonétique would cost $1600 and $3200 today.

7. IT’S FINE-GRAINED ENOUGH TO REPRESENT DIFFERENT ACCENTS.

You can test it out for yourself at Lingorado, where you can translate text into the IPA for British or American pronunciations and listen to the results. Compare the British (above) and American (below) versions of “Herbs and tomatoes for your vitamin laboratory.”

8. IT’S USED TO HELP SINGERS LEARN ARIAS IN OTHER LANGUAGES.

Opera singers need to learn songs in a variety of languages, and in addition to studying the notes and the music, they must become experts in the proper pronunciation of the lyrics. In order to avoid letting a mistaken interpretation of the printed words color their diction, they study IPA representations of the words as well. A huge selection of IPA versions of songs is available (for sale) at IPA Source; the aria above comes from Bizet's Carmen.

9. YOU CAN READ LITERATURE IN IPA.

There isn’t much in the way of literature written in IPA form, but you can find ˈÆlɪsɪz Ədˈventʃəz ɪn ˈWʌndəˌlænd. Or a version of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. There is also a 1914 book of jokes called English Humor in Phonetic Transcript that makes for a fun way to practice your IPA skills.

10. USING IT MAKES YOU NOTICE LINGUISTIC FACTS OBSCURED BY WRITING SYSTEMS.

What sound does the letter sequence 'th' represent? Two sounds that are as different as 'p' and 'b.' In IPA they get two symbols: [θ] for the voiceless sound in breath and [ð] for the voiced sound in breathe. Is there an 'n' sound in thing? Not really. When you say this word, the tip of your tongue never touches the ridge behind your teeth as an 'n' usually does. Instead, the back of your tongue meets your velum to make a velar nasal, symbolized as [ŋ]. Why does the same word no sound so different in English and Spanish? Because Spanish uses a pure mid back rounded vowel [o], while (American) English uses a diphthong [oʊ].

11. IT MAKES FOR A COOL TATTOO


Courtesy Steve Kleinedler. Design by Kyle Nelson of Stoltze Design and art by Mike Helz of Stingray Body Art.

Image courtesy of Steve Kleinedler. Design by Kyle Nelson of Stoltze Design and art by Mike Helz of Stingray Body Art.

The vowels of the IPA aren't just a collection of symbols—they're also arranged into a chart where the position of the symbol roughly corresponds to the position of the tongue in the mouth when producing that vowel. It's not just a key, but an interesting visual display. Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor at American Heritage Dictionary, has the full IPA vowel chart tattooed on his back.

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Space
Linguists Say We Might Be Able to Communicate With Aliens If We Ever Encounter Them
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If humans ever encountered extraterrestrials, would we be able to communicate with them? That was the question posed by linguists from across the country, including famed scholar Noam Chomsky, during a workshop held in Los Angeles on May 26.

Organized by a scientific nonprofit called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the one-day event entitled "Language in the Cosmos" brought together two camps that don't usually converge: linguists and space scientists. The event was held in conjunction with the National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference, which featured the likes of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, science fiction writer David Brin, and more.

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen, chair of the workshop, said in a statement that it's unlikely we'll ever come face to face with aliens or find ourselves in a "Star Trek universe where most of the aliens are humanoid and lots of them already have a 'universal translator.'" Still, scientists don't rule out the possibility of chatting with extraterrestrials via radio.

Chomsky, who's often regarded as the father of modern linguistics, was optimistic that extraterrestrial life forms—if they're out there—might observe the same “universal grammar” rules he believes serve as the foundation for all human languages. His theory of universal grammar posits that there's a genetic component to language, and the ability to acquire and comprehend language is innate. Chomsky argues that a random mutation caused early humans to make the “evolutionary jump” to language some 40,000 years ago through a process called Merge, which lets words be combined, according to New Scientist. (Not all linguists are convinced by Chomsky's theory.)

At the workshop, a presentation by Chomsky (of MIT), Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge), and Jeffrey Watumull (Oceanit) argued that "the overwhelming likelihood is that ET Universal Grammar would be also be based on Merge." They said grammar would probably not be the greatest barrier in communicating with aliens; rather, understanding their "externalization system," or whatever channel they're using to communicate, could be the greatest challenge.

Another presentation by Jeffrey Punske (Southern Illinois University) and Bridget Samuels (University of Southern California) drew a similar conclusion. Human languages have physical and biological constraints, some of which are grounded in physics, so it follows that extraterrestrial languages would be limited by the same laws of physics, the linguists said.

Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, said in a statement that these theories represent a "radical shift" for scientists working in the field, who have "scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages." Past radio messages sent out into space relied on math and science, in hopes that those principles are universal.

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
iStock

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
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Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
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Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
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Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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