Update: 2004-03-21 10:16 AM -0500


Online Phonetics Course

Department of Linguistics, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Authors' last updated: 13 January 1999. Translated from French by Daniel Ezra Johnson. Most figures on this page were adapted to English by Athanasius Lance Arron Hamilton. Please send any remarks or comments to Christophe.Pythoud@ling.unil.ch

Downloaded and edited by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.). Not for sale. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR. See reference materials used by UKT.

• The UNIL web-pages used glyphs (graphics in .gif format) to show the phonetic characters. This slows down the opening of the web-page. However I have used Arial Unicode MS exclusively. If the IPA character schwa [ ə ] appears on your computer with almost the same shape as  , then be assured that most of the characters that is displayed on your computer screen is correct.
• I have also incorporated large sections from web-pages of Kevin Russell Linguistics Department, University of Manitoba (UMB), Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 5V5, CANADA  http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/linguistics/russell/138/notes.htm
• The Burmese characters are gif-glyphs and you need not have any Burmese font.
• This paper is for those who can read and write Myanmar sar {myan'ma sa}. Please see my message To Myanmars.

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Writing things the way they sound

UKT: The following edited excerpt is from UMB. Writing things the way they sound

The standard system used to write a language is called its orthography (from Greek stems: ortho- 'correct', graphy 'writing'). Even for languages whose writing systems are based on alphabets, the standard "correct" spellings often have little to do with how the words are pronounced.

UKT: In the West, the word "language" ordinarily means the spoken language, whereas in Myanmar the emphasis is on the written language. When as a child, I went to school, the aim was to learn how to read and write. Every Myanmar child already knows how to speak his first language -- Burmese, and he went to school to learn to read and write Burmese. However, when the Myanmar child learns English, he has to learn how to speak, as well as read and write. If only he were learn an Indian language such as Hindi (the spoken language), he would have to learn Devanagari (the script) to write Hindi. In these texts whenever I say something about Burmese, and if it is necessary, the spoken language will be referred to as Bama, and the written language as Myanmar. The word Burmese generally means both the spoken and written language.

Phonetic alphabets are designed (and necessary) for writing down utterances in a way that records how they sounded. Ideally, someone who never heard the original utterance should be able to recreate it simply by reading the written transcription out loud.

How not to do it

Fiction writers will often try to give the impression that a speaker is using a different accent by deliberately misspelling some randomly chosen words.

Pets thim animals may be, an' domestic they be, but pigs I'm blame sure they do be, an' me rules says plain as the nose on yer face, 'Pigs Franklin to Westcote, thirty cints each.' An' Misther Morehouse, by me arithmetical knowledge two time thurty comes to sixty cints.
Ellis Parker Butler, "Pigs is pigs"

'Pears lak she should pay some 'tention to her fifth husban', or leastwise her fo'th, but she don'. I don' understan' wimmin. Seem lak ev'body settin' fire to somethin' ev'time I turn my back. Wonder any buildin's standin' in the whole gahdam United States.
James Thurber, "Bateman comes home"

Why not

There are several problems with trying to use ordinary English spelling conventions to suggest how a word is pronounced.

Firstly, doing so usually has offensive connotations. Writers seldom use misspelling for the speech of characters they are trying to get you to respect. While the misspellings may help suggest that a character speaks "differently" (from whom?), it usually also implies that the character is stupid or illiterate. (This is especially obvious with misspellings like "sez" that suggest a pronunciation which is almost certainly identical to pronunciation used by the writer.)

More importantly, English spelling conventions are not consistent enough to be used in a systematic phonetic transcription.
   • The same letter or letter combination can refer to different sounds.
          low  vs. cow  vs. bow, row, sow
• The same sound can be written with different letters or letter combinations.
          sound, cow, bough
• Different dialects pronounce the same word differently.
   • Good only for English (at best)

The writer of a phonetic transcription facing a particular sound would have to choose between a number of different possible symbols. The reader of a phonetic transcription facing a given symbol could never be sure of what sound it was intended to represent. There would be problems even if there were some consistency in how a symbol was used. The transcriber might say "the combination 'ay' always means the sound in the word 'day'", but would this be the word "day" as pronounced by a western Canadian, by an Australian, by a Londoner? Even if these problems could be solved, English spelling conventions would (for understandable reasons) only be useful in writing the sounds which occur in English -- they would be no help in writing sounds found in other languages (or in language-disordered children) which are not found in standard English.

UKT: Every Myanmar learning ESL (English as Second Language) is faced with the problem of supremacy of spoken word over the written word. For example, the word <plumber> is pronounced as [plumer] /plʌm.əʳ/ where [b] is silent. If the ESL learner were living in Myanmar, it would be more important for him to remember the correct spelling. And so, he should be encouraged to pronounce the [b]. Reading popular novels and cartoon strips, and watching Western movies are not beneficial for the early stages of learning ESL.

Overcoming the problems

Several writing systems have been developed which are more concerned with how a word sounds than with how it has traditionally been spelled.
   1. Shorthand systems (e.g., Internet link: Pitman shorthand)
   2. Traditional dictionary keys
   3. Informal transcription conventions
   4. Specialized alphabets
       (e.g., Internet links: George Bernard Shaw's 'Proposed English Alphabet'
        the International Phonetic Alphabet)

Shorthand systems

Many of the shorthand systems developed for English in the last couple of centuries (such as Pitman shorthand) use the idea of writing down words the way they sound, rather than the way they are spelt -- a large motivation being the time saved in not writing silent letters.

Click on the sample to see a larger one

Traditional dictionary keys

English dictionaries usually give the pronunciation of a word as part of its entry. In Webster's dictionary, for example, you will find that the pronunciation of knight is "nt" and cat is "kt". In order to understand these pronunciation entries, you have to learn what sounds are meant by symbols like "" and "".

As consistent as they can be made for a single dialect of English, both shorthand systems and the traditional dictionary pronunciation keys will suffer from the same problems as ordinary orthography when it comes to discussing the differences between dialects.

Informal transcription conventions

Professional linguists, particularly those in the North American tradition, have over the past century developed a collection of symbols for use in phonetic transcriptions. Many of these are identical to the symbols used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), but there are also several differences. For example, the "sh" sound of English is written [ ʃ ]  in IPA, but was usually written [ sˇ ] by North American linguists. Many of these differences made it easier to type the symbols on a typewriter -- instead of leaving a space where an [ ʃ ] should have been and writing it in by hand later, you could type an ordinary [s] and only have to put the check mark (or caron) on later.

Unfortunately, this set of transcription conventions was never standardized. While some of the symbols were used the same way by almost everybody (e.g., [ sˇ ]), most were not. If you read a particular symbol in a linguistics article, you could never be certain what sound it was supposed to represent.

Specialized alphabets

A more radical solution is to create an entirely new alphabet. Several proposals for new alphabets have been made over the centuries. One example shown on the right is from George Bernard Shaw's play Androcles and the Lion.

The only proposed alphabet which has achieved widespread use is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), used by phoneticians, linguists, speech/language pathologists, and increasingly by dictionary makers and second language teachers.

Click on the sample to see a larger one.

Most alphabets devised specifically for phonetic accuracy, consist of entirely new characters. The International Phonetic Alphabet is different in trying to keep the letters of the Roman alphabet as much as possible.

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02. International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Association

UKT: The following edited excerpt is from UMB: Writing things the way they sound

The initials IPA are used for both the International Phonetic Alphabet and for the International Phonetic Association which created it. It should usually be clear which one is being referred to.

IPA -- the association:
• founded in France in 1886
• most original members were language teachers. (Until 1897, its name was the Phonetic Teachers' Association.)
• published the first version of its alphabet in 1888.

IPA -- the alphabet
Guiding principle: one sound = one symbol
• a different symbol for each distinctive sound
• the same symbol should be used for that sound in every language which uses it
• simple symbols for major sounds (from the roman alphabet where possible)
• diacritics for more minor modifications

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0201. Oral Consonants

• The following table of IPA alphabet given by UNIL is not well planned. For a better table see the IPA alphabet table given by UCLA.
   The terms "consonants" and "vowels" used here are phonetic terms -- not the way in which the sounds are represented graphically. For example the sound /kat/ can be represented (although imperfectly) in English as <cat> or or {kak}.
• Use the following table for listening to the sounds of the phonemes (mp3 files) from UCLA in TIL archives. For better quality go online to Internet link: IPA.

UKT: See the original table. UNIL presentation is different from IPA presentation.

Consonants (Pulmonic)

IPA (revised to 1993, corrected 1996). See table given by IPA.

  Bilabial Labio-dental Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
p b
t d
ʈ ɖ
c ɟ
k g
q ɢ
Tap or Flap    
ɸ β
f v
θ ð
s z
ʃ ʒ
ʂ ʐ
ç ʝ
x ɣ
χ ʁ
ħ ʕ
h ɦ
Lateral fricative-    
ɬ ɮ
Lateral approximant    
Where symbols appear in pairs, the one to the right represents a voiced consonant. Shaded areas denotes articulations judged impossible.

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0202. Nasal Consonants

UKT: Use the following table for listening to the sounds of the phonemes (mp3 files) from UCLA in TIL archives. For better quality go online to Internet link: IPA.

UKT: See the original table.

m   ɱ   n   ɳ   ɲ   ŋ   ɴ
U006D   U0271   U006E   U0273   U0272   U014B   U0274

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English Consonants

UKT: The phonemes given by UNIL covers most of the western European languages. However, not all the phonemes listed by UNIL are present in the English language. The following is from DJPD16 (Daniel Jones. Edited by Peter Roach, James Hartman and Jane Setter. Cambridge University Press, 2003.)

Table of English Consonants
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal



t d
k g
ʧ ʤ
f v
θ ð
s z
ʃ ʒ
   (x)  h
Nasal  m      n      ŋ  
Approximant  w      r  j      

UKT: The affricates [ ʧ ] (U02A7), [ ʤ ] (U02A4), and fricatives [ ʃ ] (U0283), [ ʒ ] (U0292) are represented by some authors (notably American) as characters with combining carons (U030C):
[ ʧ ] = [ č ] , [ ʤ ] = [ ǯ ] , [ ʃ ] = [ š ] , [ ʒ ] = [ ž ] --  www.sfu.ca/person/dearmond/220/basic.sounds.English.220.gif

• The figure on the right is from: ESL Start-up Kit, ed O. Ebert and W. Hawk
07contrastive.html. I have re-edited the figure. The letters in red (in the original figure) are in ordinary English and are neither in IPA phonetic characters nor the so-called machine-readable phonetic letters. e.g.
[ th ] is:
   [ θ ] (U03B8) in IPA and
   [ T ] in machine-readable letter

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• Use the following table for listening to the sounds of the phonemes (mp3 files) from UCLA in TIL archives. For better quality go online to Internet link: IPA.
• The following table of IPA alphabet given by UNIL is not well planned. For a better table see the IPA alphabet table given by UCLA.
• See the UNIL original table which listed only 20 vowels were listed: given in the table below on the left. The Vowel quadrilateral (figure on the lower right) was redrawn from IPA alphabet table given by UCLA.
• Note that UNIL original table did not list:
[ ɪ ] (U026A), [ ʏ ] (U028F), and [ ʊ ] (U028A) - between Close and Close-mid
- [ ɘ  ] (U0258), [ ɵ ] (U0275) - Close-mid central
- [ ɜ ] (U025C), [ ɞ ] (U025E) - Open-mid front
- [ ɶ ] (U0276) - Open front rounded

U0069 [ i ],  U0079 [ y ];    U0268 [ ɨ ], U0289 [ ʉ ];    U026F [ ɯ ], U0075 [ u ]

   U0065 [ e ], U00F8 [ ø ];                                        U0264 [ ɤ ], U006F [ o ]

                                                       U0259 [ ə ]

       U025B [ ɛ ], U0153 [ œ ]                                   U028C [ ʌ ], U0254 [ ɔ ]

                 U00E6 [ æ ]                        U0250 [ ɐ ]

                    U0061 [ a ]                                          U0251 [ ɑ ], U0252 [ ɒ ]

Vowel quadrilateral.
Click on figure to see a larger picture.

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English Vowels

UKT: The phonemes given by UNIL covers most of the western European languages. However, not all the phonemes listed by UNIL are present in the English language. The following is from DJPD16 (Daniel Jones. Edited by Peter Roach, James Hartman and Jane Setter. Cambridge University Press, 2003.)

British English (BBC accent) is generally described as having short vowels, long vowels and diphthongs. There are said to be seven short vowels, five long ones and eight diphthongs. At the end of this section some attention is also given to triphthongs.

• Short vowels:
ɪ e æ ʌ ɒ ʊ ə
U026A U0065 U00E6 U028C U0252 U028A U0259
<pit> <pet> <pat> <putt> <pot> <put> <another>
/pɪt/ /pet/ /pæt/ /pʌt/ /pɒt/ /pʊt/ /əˈnʌð.əʳ/

• Long vowels

ɑː ɔː ɜː
<bean> <barn> <born> <boon> <burn>
/biːn/ /bɑːn/ /bɔːn/ /buːn/ /bɜːn/
• Diphthongs
ɔɪ əʊ ɪə ʊə
<bay> <buy> <boy> <no> <now> <peer> <pair> <poor>

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English vowels -- Canadian English

UKT: The following is from UMB

We will be covering the vowels used in most dialects of Canadian English. Other dialects may not make all the distinctions given here, may make more distinctions, and may use different vowels for some of the words.
   The transcriptions of the vowels are somewhat simplified. The way the symbols have been used is very close to the way they should be used in IPA, but the correspondence is not perfect.

Remember that the same vowel sound should be represented (phonetically) by the same symbol, regardless of a word's conventional (orthographic) spelling. This means:
• if two words are homonyms, they should have exactly the same transcription
• if two words rhyme, they should have the same vowel symbol (and the same symbols for any following consonants).

/ i / <machine> /məˈʃin/   <heed> /hid/
<beat> <beet> /bit/   <sneak> /snik/

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Vowel area

from: Teaching Vowels in Practical Phonetics: The Auditory or Articulatory Route? by Martin J. Ball, University of Ulster, http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/johnm/ball.htm

Vowel description has traditionally differed from consonant description. This means that teaching the production of vowels and consonants in practical phonetics requires different techniques. Unfortunately, this means that students have to master both approaches to their studies.

Consonants are described and classified according to their production: manner of articulation (e.g. stop, fricative); place of articulation (e.g. alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular); and voicing. Students, therefore, can use these labels to aid in learning the articulation of consonants.

Vowels, on the other hand, have traditionally been taught via the Cardinal Vowel System. This system is based on a set of auditory reference points, and vowels are described in terms of how close they are to these reference points. Cardinal Vowels, therefore, have to be learnt by students auditorily: through imitating models, not by learning their articulation.

In the most recent revision of the International Phonetic Alphabet (1993), the vowel diagram was re-arranged (see Figure 1). All unrounded vowels are displayed on the left of each point. All rounded vowels are displayed on the right. A full set of central vowels is provided, and symbols for lax vowels are added to the diagram.

Vowel area and Vowel quadrilateral

The vowel quadrilateral (UKT: which is meant to represent the vowel area -- colored yeallow) is, in fact, quite divergent from the actual shape of the vowel area (see Figure 2). Catford (1977), among others, has suggested a diagram closer to physical reality could be adopted. This could allow articulatory descriptions of vowels, similar to those used for consonants. In order to produce a diagram closer to the vowel area, the angled corners of the Cardinal Vowel diagram need to be abandoned, and a chart nearer to the ellipse shape in Figure 2 created.

Vowels are the next most open articulation type after approximants and fricatives. This means that close vowels can easily be linked to the palatal, velar, uvular and pharyngeal places of articulation. Students learn their production by moving the tongue slightly between consonantal and vocalic versions at each place.

An articulatory system (not shown here) follows the vowel area more closely, and this means that [i, i, u, o, a, a] are all located on the upper periphery. Other vowels are labelled as being close-mid, open-mid or open in relation to one of the places of articulation. Due to the shape of the diagram, the lower left corner vowel [a] is both an open palatal and an open pharyngeal vowel.

Ref: Catford, I. (1977) Fundamental Problems in Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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