What is IPA?

a paper looking similar to IPA chart and the word IPA right to it
Baran Kılıç • May 8, 2022

IPA and its history

IPA is the abbreviation for the International Phonetic Alphabet. It maps speech sounds to letters and allows people to write the pronunciation of words in a standardized way. IPA is used by students, teachers, singers, and linguists to study the pronunciation of words.

IPA was created by the International Phonetic Association, which was formed in 1886 by a group of language teachers. Over the years, IPA has undergone several revisions. The last version (2020 revision) of the chart is available at this link.

The aim of IPA is to standardize pronunciation. The same letter may be pronounced differently in different words. For example, the letter s can be pronounced with the /s/, /z/, and /ʃ/ sounds. The sound /s/ is used with the word set /sɛt/. The sound /z/ is used with the word choose /t͡ʃuːz/. The word sheep /ʃip/ contains the sound /ʃ/.

Structure of IPA

IPA is mainly based on the Latin alphabet, although it also contains some letters from other alphabets like Greek. IPA may look complicated and intimidating since it has more than 100 letters, but a single language only uses a small subset of these letters. Therefore, there is no need to learn all the IPA letters.

The IPA letters are divided into three categories: pulmonic consonants, non-pulmonic consonants, and vowels. Diacritics and suprasegmentals give extra details. It is okay if you don’t know what pulmonic or consonants mean. These technical terms are just used to categorize the letters. One doesn’t need to know these words to speak correctly. Still, it is good to be famiar with them. So, let’s learn what these categories mean in detail.

Pulmonic consonants

A pulmonic consonant is a consonant made by obstructing the glottis (the space between the vocal cords) or the mouth and letting out air from the lungs. Some examples are /m/, /n/, /p/, and /b/. Pulmonic consonant are categorized by manner of articulation, place of articulation, and phonation.

Non-pulmonic consonants

Non-pulmonic consonants are sounds whose airflow is not dependent on the lungs.


A vowel is a speech sound in which the mouth is open, and the tongue is not touching the top of the mouth, the teeth, etc. Some examples for IPA vowels are /o/, /ə/, and /i/. Vowels are categorized by tongue height, tongue backness, and lip rounding.


IPA uses diacritics to modify the pronunciation of the letter.


Suprasegmentals denote details about the length, stress, rhythm, and tones of the letters. /ˈ/, /ˌ/, /ː/ can be given as examples for suprasegmentals. Primary stress /ˈ/ tells you to give emphasis to syllable following this character.


Square brackets [] and slashes // are used to denote IPA transcriptions. Square brackets are used to give the transcriptions speech sounds that are spoken (phonetic transcription), while slashes are used to give only distinctive features transcriptions (phonemic transcription). For example the word “pin” is transcribed as /pɪn/, [pʰɪn]. Note that the /p/ is aspirated in the phonetic transcription. Aspiration means that you will pronounce the p with a puff of air.