How is phonetic transcription software made

/ ai pi ei / - IPA

Some people may have asked themselves 1.) what these strange letters next to the words in dictionaries mean and 2.) who can read them at all. I can answer these questions briefly and crisply: 1.) It is an internationally standardized phonetic transcription. 2.) Linguists.

As daunting as these symbols may seem at first glance, the idea behind them is just as fabulous! Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of learning a foreign language has also noticed that the letters may look the same, but are often pronounced very differently. The IPA phonetic transcription system circumvents this problem elegantly and charmingly by looking very carefully at where and how a sound is produced and thus assigns a unique symbol to every conceivable sound. The so-called sound inventory of a language can thus be clearly recorded and the enthusiastic language learner can learn the pronunciation of his target language even under the worst conditions - the total deprivation of audio material due to an empty cell phone battery. Wonderful!
I admit, at first glance it seems quite intimidating. In addition to the myriad of symbols, you also have to know what the names mean for the place and type of articulation in order to be able to figure them out. But do not despair! I'll do my best to prepare you the wonders of phonetic spelling like a smooth piña colada that you casually sip through a straw on a hot summer's day. And when you're done, you not only have a pleasant swip, but also a free umbrella and a cocktail cherry to snack on. But back to the topic.

What is the IPA?

IPA is (among many, many others - Wikipedia names 21 terms that are abbreviated with IPA) the abbreviation for "International Phonetic Alphabet" and for "International Phonetic Association", the organization that developed the IPA phonetic system at the end of the 19th century has come up with. Well, those from the IPA weren't the first to dream of a uniform phonetic spelling. Much earlier, in the 17th century, European scholars from a wide variety of disciplines dreamed of creating an alphabet with which every language could be described in terms of its pronunciation. But only the IPA managed to make such a sign system socially acceptable that today we can all laugh heartily at the following meme:

IPA in practice

So far, so good, so much on the subject of history and the explanation of terms (of course, you could write entire dissertations about it, but that's enough for our purposes for now). So how does it all look in practice? To get closer to this question, I have to throw you in the deep end and just shoot the entire IPA chart at your head. Also at the risk of being so traumatized that you quit linguistics and language learning and study business administration instead ...

Everyone knows that first impressions count. So it is understandable that love is not at first sight with this table. But please bear in mind that 1.) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and 2.) In the end it worked out with “Beauty and the Beast”!

For a gentle introduction to phonetic transcription, the first table and the one below on the right provide enough tools to get a good orientation in many languages. The large table at the beginning describes consonants, the second is devoted to vowels. Let’s start with the consonants


There are three basic things here to be able to understand the whole thing: the place of articulation (described in the top line), the type of articulation (described in the left column) and voicing (the case wherever two symbols are listed in a field). As already mentioned, every symbol describes a sound and what makes the sound the sound it is are these three factors. Let's take a look at the points of articulation. They describe where in the atriculation tract the air flow is manipulated in such a way that the respective sound is ultimately created. The terms come from Latin and are in principle an anatomical description of the oral and nasal cavities and the trachea. But instead of describing all the fun to you, I fished this nice graphic from the internet that illustrates the whole thing much better than I could ever put it into words:

So if, for example, we press both lips together and suddenly the air escapes and the vocal folds “flutter” in the process, then we have a / b /, a bilabial, voiced plosive. If we place the outer edges of the tongue a bit behind the alveolar ridge, let the air slide over the tongue and let the vocal folds relax, then a postalveolar, voiceless fricative comes out. And that brings us to the art of articulation. These are the terms in the left column: plosive, nasal, trill, tap or flap, fricative, lateral fricative, approximant and lateral approximant. At first glance, they seem just as daunting as the places of articulation. With the small difference that you can't really create a graphic for the articulation types. The only thing that helps then is learning and internalizing (by heart).

  • Plosive: At the respective articulation point, a kind of barricade is erected with the lips or the tongue, on which the air flow accumulates and suddenly loosens. I've always tinkered with the donkey bridge so that loosening it is like a little "explosion", i.e. (explosive) plosive.
  • Nasal: The name says it all. The air flow cannot escape through the oral cavity and has to escape to the nasal cavity. Try it out, do a / m / and put your hand in front of your nose.
  • Trill: think of a whistle. There is a small ball in the case that hits the case quickly and often while the whistle is blowing. With a trill it is the same only with the lips (/ B /) or with the tongue (/ r /, / ʀ /).
  • Tap / flap: with the tap / flap it is a matter of striking the tongue against the articulation point once.
  • Fricative: As already mentioned above, the fricative is a fricative. The air stream flows past the articulation point and practically rubs against it. With a / f / for example, the air flows past between the teeth, with a / ch / the edges of the tongue lie against the velum palatium and the air flows over the tongue (note, the / ch / is in the table a [x ], I'll get to the brackets later).
  • lateral fricative: It's still a fricative, but the air doesn't just flow over the tongue, but past the sides.
  • Approximant: with approximators the airflow is not "disturbed" as much as with fricatives, trills, etc ... The airflow can therefore flow relatively unhindered. In German, for example, the / j / is a prominent representative, in English the / ɹ /.
  • lateral approximant: here the "lateral" is again the same as with the lateral fricatives. The air must therefore flow past the side of the tongue. The German / l / demonstrates this wonderfully. The tip of the tongue rests against the alveolar process and the air flows easily past it.
  • Small note on the difference between fricatives and approximants: The keen mind has probably already noticed it itself. But for those who (like me in my early days) prefer to take things slower, the following tip is given: all fricatives can be produced voiced as well as voiceless. But if you try to produce an approximate voiceless, nothing comes out of it but a faint breath.

Well then, comrades, we are halfway there. Come on, it's time to face the vowels!


At this point we already know how that works with the consonants in the IPA table and it is obvious that consonants and vowels are somehow different things. The IPA provides us with the following table for describing vowels:

The main difference between vowels and consonants is that vowels allow air to pass through the articulation tract completely unhindered. What exactly now means “completely unhindered” is a bit of hair-splitting, which is why I've heard opinions that ascribe a vowel status to the / j /, for example. On Wikipedia, the / j / is referred to as a half-vowel. But if you are honest, a / j / is not exactly the same as an / a / or an / e /.

So far so good. Back to the vowels in the IPA. This table basically shows the oral cavity. The position of the tongue is shown horizontally. When it comes to producing vowels, this lies around loosely and doesn't have much to do compared to fricatives or trills, for example. But where it is hanging around in the mouth affects which vowel it becomes in the end. The openness or the closedness of the lips is shown vertically. Of course, the lips are never closed completely, otherwise it would no longer be a vowel, but a nasal or plosive. Still, it does matter how far the lips are open. Last but not least, under the table there is the note that in cases where two symbols exist, the right one represents a rounded vowel. This means that it also plays a role whether the lips are open flat or round.
So, that was a whole bunch of theory, the best thing to do is to just try out the vowels and pay close attention to what changes. So if you produce an / i / and slowly open your lips, the / i / soon becomes an / e / and finally an / a / (of course there are a few vowels in between). If you start at an / e / and slowly push your tongue backwards, the / e / becomes a / o /. It's a very funny gimmick. However, it is more recommendable if you are alone or at the Institute of Linguistics. It could be a bit strange in the tram…. For all those who do not want to give themselves up to the nakedness of phonetic trying things out, you can also look for interactive IPA tables on the Internet where you can listen to the individual sounds. Further down I provide you with a collection of useful links and literature tips.

The fun with the brackets

The thing about the brackets is that you distinguish between a phonetic and a phonological transcription of words, with the phonetic transcription in square brackets and the phonological in slashes. The difference between phonetics and phonology definitely deserves its own blog entry, but as far as the brackets are concerned, I can give you a foretaste here.

  • phonetic transcription [...]: Phonetic transcription is about precisely identifying every sound produced. This is used when, for example, you want to compare the German of speakers of different varieties. It can be the German in different regions, just like in different social classes, etc ... And to indicate this, square brackets are used. So while I pronounce the word “green” like this: [gʁyːn], Max Raabe or Till Lindemann would probably rather sing it like this [gryːn].
  • phonological transcription / ... /: here it is, to put it stupidly, not taken quite so seriously with the accuracy. The thing is: in every language there are sounds that can be replaced by others without changing the meaning of a word or its intelligibility. In the example above with “green”, it is the different / r / sounds. So I can transcribe the word “green” phonologically as / green / and it's fairly clear what is meant. It makes no difference whether I speak a [ʁ] or a [r], or whether I articulate the / ü / a little more rounded or a little further back. Another example that might illustrate the whole thing a little better is the word "chess". The sound / sch / is represented phonetically as [ʃ] and the / ch / as [ç] or [x] depending on the preceding vowel. Phonetically transcribed that would be [ʃax]. But because the orthography stipulates that [ʃ] is written as "sch" and that "ch" does not change the meaning if it is pronounced as [ç] or [x], it is very clear what is meant by / chess / is meant. (And for the nerds among you: sounds that differ in meaning are called phonemes. For example / rad / and / bad /. Sounds that are simply variants of a phoneme and have no meaning-distinguishing properties are called allophones. For example [r] and [ʁ] in German.

I know. That was a lot at once, but to explain the IPA, you have to go through at least the points mentioned here at once, so that the whole thing also gives a nice overall picture. Otherwise you only have pieces of the puzzle that you really have to put together again on your own. I still hope that you won't turn your back on me after this post!
And finally there are a couple of links that I came across during my research and a couple of books for all those who were excited!


Sources and further reading

  • Ladefoged, P. & Johnson, K. (2011).A Course in Phonetics(6th edition). Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Müller, H. M. (2009).Linguistics workbook: an introduction to linguistics(2nd, revised and updated edition). Paderborn Munich Vienna Zurich: Ferdinand Schöningh.
  • Volmert, J. (Ed.). (2005).Basic course in linguistics: an introduction to linguistics for teacher training courses(5th, corrected and supplementary edition). Munich: Fink.
  • Yule, G. (1996).The study of language(2nd ed). Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press.