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The International Phonetic Alphabet's European Origins - A Brief History

by Liminality

If you’ve looked up a name on Wikipedia, you might have noticed that pronunciation guides are written in a script that is unlike the language the rest of the article is written in. This is because Wikipedia uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (the IPA, for short) to convey the pronunciation of words. For example, looking up ‘Zimbabwe’ will return an article that also mentions /zɪmˈbɑːbweɪ,-wi/. [6] This represents two different pronunciations of the country’s name. Specifically, the last syllable is different, and the alternate pronunciations are separated by a comma.

Image: Screenshot of the IPA chart revised to 2015, showing consonants at the top, followed by vowels, other symbols, diacritics and suprasegmentals. Unlike the other classes of sounds which are displayed in tables of lists, the vowels are displayed in a trapezium diagram, and each point corresponds to approximately where a vowel is produced in the mouth. Sourced from the International Phonetic Association [3]

What is the IPA?

The IPA chart is meant to give us a standardized way to represent human speech across all languages. Items on the chart are organized by how the vocal anatomy, such as the tongue and teeth, behaves to produce a sound [7, p.1]. Because a particular symbol always corresponds to the same sound, the IPA potentially could represent human languages in a convenient way that would not be possible if the orthography of a particular language was used [7, p.4].

Consider the English language in its written form. For most dialects, the letter ‘a’ is read differently in the following words: acorn, arson and annul. The IPA could be used to describe the three different sounds that occur at the beginning of each word.

The IPA Began in Europe

Although the IPA is a useful tool for transcribing speech sounds all over the world, it was historically created in Europe, a history that influences aspects of its development. The organization in charge of the IPA, the International Phonetic Association (confusingly, sharing the same acronym as the alphabet) was founded by English and French-speaking linguists [7, p.4]. This might be reflected for example, in how in 1888, the languages cited in the IPA were all European. Centrally, English, French and German were used to demonstrate sounds, with a separate category for ‘other languages’, which included more European languages, such as Swedish, Spanish and Flemish [5].

An encyclopedia entry quotes the organisation’s principles of 1888 saying they wanted to use symbols to represent sounds in a way that would be similar to “familiar” sound-symbol mappings [7, p.5]. At one point, clicks, which are prominent for example in Southern African languages [7, p.1] were removed from consonants and put into the category of ‘other’ symbols [1, p. 19]. Now, clicks are considered non-pulmonic consonants, but the fact that their status as consonants was challenged could suggest the dominance of European norms.

Additionally, though the IPA was first introduced to the public in 1888 as an alphabet with descriptive labels, [5] the Japanese linguist Tsutomu Akamatsu notes that many English dictionaries made in the USA at the time of the 1990s still did not normally use the IPA [1, p.9], which could further suggest its linkage with European academia.

The 1989 Revision

Many changes have been made to the IPA since its inception, as more languages have been studied and documented. Zimman notes that the 1989 revision in particular was a major one [7, p.5]. The International Phonetic Association met in Kiel, Germany to revise the 1979 version of the chart, and the new revision was approved with twenty votes for and three against, suggesting the changes were somewhat controversial [1, p.9]. However, it is difficult to say based on this exactly how controversial they were, since the members could only vote yes or no [1, p.9].

One example of the changes that were made in this revision was the removal of two categories of sounds: ‘labial-palatal’ and ‘labial-velar’. These were sounds that were produced in two areas of the vocal anatomy – the lips and hard palate (roof of the mouth), and the lips and velum (an area close to the back of the mouth, otherwise called the soft palate). The sounds formerly in those categories were placed in ‘other symbols’, which Akamatsu suggests was a dismissive move [1, p.13].

Another feature that was changed was the classification of ‘pulmonic’ sounds. Pulmonic sounds are those produced through an exhalation of air from the lungs. Interestingly, Akamatsu also comments on the distinction between pulmonic and non-pulmonic sounds being “abandoned” in the 1989 revision. They suggest that this distinction, present in the 1979 version, was portrayed in a binary way and made pulmonic consonants appear to be the norm [1, p.17]. However, as can be seen in the chart above, the distinction is nowadays retained, with pulmonic and non-pulmonic consonants appearing in separate charts.

Today, the way sounds are presented in the chart arguably still reflect the dominance of European languages as ‘the norm’. The IPA mainly uses Roman characters to represent sounds, for example with symbols such as [k], [t] and [b], with the additions of characters from other European alphabets, including Greek. The use of diacritics, which are the accents added to the symbols such as a tilde or a dot, might imply that the ‘basic’ symbol is the norm, whereas the one modified with a diacritic is outside the norm [7, p.5].


Overall, while the IPA has its strengths in representing speech sounds in a convenient way, it also has features that arguably reflect its European origins. The implications of this could include an unsatisfactory depiction of non-European languages or an inequality in exactly how useful or convenient a tool this alphabet makes between European languages and languages from the rest of the world.


[1] Akamatsu, T. (1992). "A critique of the IPA chart (revised to 1951, 1979 and 1989)". Contextos Magazine. 10 (19–20): 7–45.

[2] Akamatsu, T. (2003–2004). "A critique of the IPA chart (revised to 1996)". Contextos Magazine. 21–22 (41–44): 135–149.

[3] IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2018 International Phonetic Association.

[4] Macmahon, M. (1986). The International Phonetic Association: The first 100 years. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 16(1), 30-38. doi:10.1017/S002510030000308X

[5] Udomkesmalee, N. (2018). Historical charts of the International Phonetic Alphabet. https://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/IPAcharts/IPA_hist/IPA_hist_2018.html

[6]Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 10). Zimbabwe. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:09, August 10, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zimbabwe&oldid=1038014153

[7] Zimman, L. (2021). International Phonetic Alphabet. In The International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology, J. Stanlaw (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118786093.iela0179

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Tue Aug 10, 2021 5:39 pm
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MailicedeNamedy wrote a review...

Hi Lim,

Mailice here with a short review! :D

I don't know to what extent you consider this article/essay to be a scientific paper, so I don't know if it's right the way I evaluate it. I don't think I'll be as strict as I was at university. :D

I like your opening. I really liked that you addressed the reader with your first sentence and gave a little example. Firstly, it gives an interesting entry into the topic, but also the possibility to make the reader curious, because you gave an example with Zimbabwe, which has two different pronunciations at once.

I very much welcome the screenshot and the overview with it. Even if you haven't dealt with the IPA that much, you can get a first overview of the different characters and how to pronounce them by looking at the structure and the layout. (That's speaking in general now, because I've never actually learned IPA, even though it's seen so often, like in dictionaries, etc...).

I think it's good that you start with a question first, and explain a bit what it is, and also add the footnotes as sources right away I also found very good. It looks very much like a work and I like that a critical reader can read everything again.

I liked the history section, you expanded on it and also showed what the origin was. But I also thought you went too fast from about the second paragraph. Now I'm not familiar with the whole history of the IPA, but I think there are some other things, like how often it was changed, or the names of the people connected to it etc... (It was interesting when I searched for it that your essay here came up second on my search engine). :D Later on you do go to a larger point from the story, which I think is good.

I thought your structure was generally great and it was possible to read into the topic even without having any experience in it. I found it interesting how you expanded and explained some things a bit further, but I also think that you could perhaps go a bit further into the origins of what the precursors were, as this once again underlines your conclusion that the European influence can be seen strongly there. (If you also consider the time, the end of the 19th century and Europe's supremacy as a colonial power, it also shows how Europe-centric the world was at that time, because Europe was seen as the only civilised continent).

For example, as much as I think your introduction is great and it also appeals to a younger audience with it, I think you should rephrase it a bit in a neutral position, like you did in the rest of the text. Of course, only if it is strongly in the direction of a scientific paper. Maybe you could have given an example somewhere where it is currently still used. (For example, I think the Pope reads something written in IPA in several languages on New Year's Day (?). But I couldn't find a source in a hurry).

Otherwise, I think it's a very interesting piece you've presented here. As I said, I never learned the IPA and still don't have a direct plan on how to pronounce it. Nevertheless, it was fun to deal with the topic and you also described and presented it well.

Have fun writing!


Liminality says...

Thanks so much for the review! Your feedback is really helpful, especially on the introduction. I'll definitely look more into current applications of the IPA in daily life. Thanks again!

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Tue Aug 10, 2021 2:34 pm
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Kelisot wrote a review...

Nice job on clearing the History on IPA! Although I suck at writing at them for new languages (because why not, creating is fun), but it's very useful! REALLY, REALLY, do I appreciate you for crediting your resources.
And I believe most of your sources are accurate, and you even gave credit to the IPA Chart! I have to agree that you are an amazing person-- I always get copyright strike issues because sometimes I do it wrong I forgot it. (that's just normal me, that's why I always create original work lmao)
Stressing some letters and memorizing the IPA is... quite impossible for me. Wonder how you're doing well here.

Liminality says...

Thanks for the review! Yeah, memorising the symbols is definitely hard. I always end up referring back to the charts if I'm not sure.

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