International Phonetic Alphabet

alphabetic system of phonetic notation

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system for writing down sounds. It was created by the International Phonetic Association in 1886, so that people could write down sounds of languages in a standard way.[1] Linguists, language teachers, and translators use this system to show the pronunciation for words.

International Phonetic Alphabet
"IPA" in IPA ([aɪ pʰiː eɪ])
Script type
– partially featural
Time period
since 1888
LanguagesUsed for phonetic and phonemic transcription of any language
Related scripts
Parent systems
The official chart of the IPA, revised in 2020

Wikipedia also uses the IPA to show how certain words are meant to be spoken. Most symbols are letters in the Latin alphabet, or variations of it. For example, the palatal approximant (the y in yesterday) is written with [j]. In IPA symbols can be written between slashes (called a broad transcription, e.g."little" can be written as /lɪtl/ ) or in square brackets (called a narrow transcription, e.g. "little" can be written [lɪɾɫ], which is how specific groups say it). Narrow translation is more precise than broad.

The IPA has symbols only for sounds that are used normally in spoken languages. The Extensions to the International Phonetic Alphabet (or extIPA) are used to write down other sounds.

The IPA is sometimes changed, and symbols are added or taken away. Right now there are 107 different letters in the IPA. There are also 52 marks which are added to letters to change their sound. These marks are called "diacritics".



In 1886, a group of French and British language teachers formed the International Phonetic Association. These teachers used the Romic alphabet at first. They later changed the alphabet so that different languages would all write the same sounds with the same letters.

Use of the alphabet


The IPA is made to have one symbol for every sound. This means that every letter always makes the same one sound. This is different from English. In English, some letters make multiple sounds. For example, the letter <x> in English normally is spoken as two sounds ([ks]), but could also be spoken as [gz] or [z].



The International Phonetic Alphabet has letters for three types of sounds: pulmonic consonants, non-pulmonic consonants, and vowels.

Pulmonic consonants


Pulmonic consonants are made by blocking air coming from the lungs. Most consonants (and all English consonants) are pulmonic. The symbols for these sounds are arranged in a table. The rows show how the sound is made (the manner of articulation), and the columns show where it is made (the place of articulation).

Non-pulmonic consonants


Non-pulmonic consonants are made without air coming from the lungs. There are three types of non-pulmonic consonants. Implosive consonants are made by taking air into the mouth. Ejective consonants are made by forcing the air out of the larynx instead of the lungs. Click consonants are made by creating an airtight pocket in the mouth and quickly releasing it.



Vowels are sounds made without blocking air at all.


  1. International Phonetic Association (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65236-7. (hb); (pb).

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