English Pronunciation (7)

International Phonetic Alphabet

How do you say a word that you've read but never heard?

If the word is bolt or deck, it's easy; you read it, you say it.

But what if it's basic, bear, plough, awry or misled? You could say basic as baysik or bazzik; bear could be like beer or air; plough could be like cow, duff, or, oh, moo or thorough; awry could be ori or a-rye; misled could be mizld or miss-led.

I got awry and misled wrong myself when I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew what they meant, but not how to say them (see below). And I still don't know how to say diplodocus, furlough, gyves, dehiscent, slough or trow, because I've never heard anybody say them.

An online dictionary will tell you. I like this one: The Oxford Learner's Dictionary. It's big, it's friendly and you can listen to both the British and American pronunciations.

However, I strongly recommend that my students work with a paper dictionary, not an online or electronic dictionary. Find a good dictionary (not too big for your level, not too small). If you use the same one all the time - your own personal paper dictionary - it soon becomes a friend. A paper dictionary also tells you how to say the words, using the International Phonetic Alphabet:

English word: Sounds like: International Phonetic Alphabet
basic baysik 'beɪsɪk
bear air, fair, hair beə
plough how, now, cow plaʊ
awry a + rye ə'raɪ
misled miss + led mɪsled

English has 24 consonant sounds, and 20 vowel sounds including the schwa. The letter a can sound like the vowel in bay, bar, bat, hair or mountain. So, English has 44 sounds (plus a few regional or cultural extras like the 'glottal stop'). However, the English alphabet has only 26 letters. We need more letters...

That's the good thing about the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.

Of course, the IPA is a tool. It's only useful if you know how to use it. 'pærət 'paɪrət. One of these words is parrot, the other is pirate. Which word is which?

Most of the IPA symbols look like the corresponding English letters, but there are some new shapes, such as ʃ for the English sh, tʃ for the English ch, and both θ and ð for the English th (because there are two th sounds).

Three of these new shapes are particularly important:

International Phonetic Alphabet vowel length markerThe ː symbol shows that there is a long vowel sound. That's the difference between ship (ʃɪp) and sheep (ʃiːp). Sheep has a loooooong vowel sound. Click here to see more on ship and sheep. The IPA uses the ː symbol again with the IPA symbol ɑ to make the long "aa" sound in star and car; with the IPA symbol e to make the long "ay" sound in day and say; and with the IPA symbol u, to make the long "oo" sound in food.

International Phonetic Alphabet apostropheThe ' symbol or apostrophe shows which syllable is stressed. In most words with two or more syllables, we stress one syllable more. For example TEACHer. In the IPA, that's 'tiːtʃə, and the apostrophe tells us to stress the first syllable. Click here for more about stress in words. The IPA apostrophe symbol usually means you stress the syllable AFTER the apostrophe.

International Phonetic Alphabet schwa soundThe ə symbol shows that there is the shortest possible vowel sound between two consonants. This is called the 'schwa'. Any vowel (a, e, i, o or u) can become a schwa sound if it's in an unstressed part of a sentence. Click here for more about the schwa, or here for more about stress in sentences.


Nicholas's IPA Machine

Thumbnail of Nicholas's IPA machineHow do opera singers say words in languages they don't know? They listen...
The secret of pronunciation is to listen to what people are really saying, not to what you think they're saying.

Click the image to listen to the 44 sounds ("phonemes") of the English language. You'll find examples, advice and images about pronouncing:

  • the schwa sound
  • ship and sheep
  • b versus v
  • b versus p
  • and many more.


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