Origins of the International Phonetic Alphabet

[ 0 ] August 7, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Origins of the International Phonetic Alphabet artThe International Phonetic Alphabet is something every translator, linguist, speech pathologist, and even singer and actor has probably heard of and worked with. For the rest of us, an introduction, or at least a refresher, might be necessary. In very simple terms, it is the alphabetic system used to represent all of the features of languages that have to do with sound and oral language. This means phonemes, intonation, syllables, and more, plus auxiliary symbols that are used to show other speech qualities.

This particular system was developed by the International Phonetic Association, which was founded in the 19th century in order to study the science behind phonetics and how to apply the findings practically. Paris was where the association began, and the roots of it were in helping children to learn how to pronounce words in foreign languages. The phonetic alphabet was originally going to be many alphabets, one for each language, but it was later decided that a universal, or international, one would be better, as long as it included all of the necessary sounds.

The alphabet itself is made up of 107 letters, 52 diacritics (those signs used to modify the pronunciation of certain letters), and 4 prosodic marks, which are used to show intonation, stress, rhythm, and more. This is just the most recent version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, though. It has gone through many versions since the first one was developed starting in 1886 and published in 1887.

After the publishing of the first alphabets in 1887 that were meant to be used for English, French, and German, a declaration of purpose was published in 1888. It included six statements that would shape the future of the International Phonetic Alphabet. First, each sign needed to have its own sound. Second, the same sign should be used to represent the same sound in every language.

Third, letters should be based on Latin/Roman script, and new symbols should only be used if there are no other choices. Fourth, how a sound is used internationally should determine the sign for it. Fifth, any new letters should visually represent the sound they are for. Finally, diacritics shouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary, since they complicate things visually.

In 1900, the alphabet was expanded to include symbols for sounds used in non-European languages, such as Arabic, and other languages that generally don’t use the Latin alphabet. Another revision occurred in 1923, which added a fair amount of symbols and diacritics, and was left relatively untouched for decades (some symbols were added in 1938, 1947, and 1951). 1976 and 1979 saw a revamping of the charts used to organize the symbols, as well as some symbols being reworked and reassigned.

In 1993, a new vowel was added, symbols for voiceless implosives were removed, and glottal consonants were put in the same category as clicks. 1996 included some minor changes as well. In 2005, a new symbol was added, and in 2015 the appearance of some symbols were modified a bit. That brings us to 2016, where we still use essentially the same alphabet as was proposed in 1923, but expanded a bit and reorganized.

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