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11 Fun Facts About the International Phonetic Alphabet

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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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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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