the beauty, the wonder: the International Phonetic Alphabet

There’s so much to write about, but I’m dying to talk about this.

My tenth grade biology teacher assigned the entire class to write a paper.  The title of the paper was to be “The Beauty, The Wonder: The Menstrual Cycle.”  So now that phrase is stuck in my head and I apply it to anything whose beauty and wonder is under-appreciated.

I love the International Phonetic Alphabet.

I love it.

Its friends call it IPA.

Yes, like India Pale Ale.  I even prefer ordering India Pale Ales over other beers, though I’m generally fond of darker beers, because when I ask the bartender for one, I get to say, “I’d like an IPA.”  And in my mind I’m thinking “International Phonetic Alphabet!”

For those who have not yet had the fortune of experiencing the beauty and the wonder of IPA, here’s why it’s so great.  In the following sentence, there is an O in every word:

Do you know John does nothing good on the Borough Board of Hounds?

I don’t know what a Board of Hounds is, but I’m dismayed at John’s lack of initiative in the affairs of the Borough.  Sad.  Anyway, I can’t IPA on Blogger, but suffice it to say that there are fifteen O’s in that sentence, pronounced ten different ways.


And all of those ways can be spelled with O in different combinations or without O at all.  Also, each of those spellings can be pronounced differently.

1.  do, you  (like blue but not so, possibly like dew but not sew or even sow)
2.  know, bo-ROUGH (actual O sound!  Also spelled no, doe, sew, and sow but not how, and certainly not like rough)
3. John (like FAther)
4. does, nothing, of (like gun, but not goes, not, or offer)
5. good (should, but not food)
6. on (faun, but not ton)
7. our (are? hour?)
8. BO-rough (giraffe? earth?)
9. board (like lord, but not hoax)
10. hounds (gowns, not you or Housatonic)

Because the Romans conquered the British Isles and said “whatever language they’re speaking, we need to write it in our alphabet.  Our alphabet was designed to represent our language, Latin, which we speak in Rome, and why it’s called the Roman Alphabet, even though the first letters are neither Alpha nor Beta and that was the Greeks, who have a different alphabet…”

They didn’t say any of that, actually.  But the Romans, and then the French with their Romance language, imposed the Roman alphabet on Germanic English.  They tried to write down, for example, “th” as best they could, but there was no symbol for that sound.  So English is confusing to pronounce.  It doesn’t look like it sounds.  (French, funnily enough, had the opposite track, where it used to be pronounced more like it’s spelled, but now they just don’t bother saying half the letters.)

It answers every question about singing–especially ensemble singing!  You don’t have to worry about what the native language of a singer is, or what regional accent they have.  One symbol, one sound.

When you see [o], it means the pure part of the sound in “no,” the way Mid-westerners say it. Or Canadians.
When you see [u], it’s the same pure “ooo” sound as a Minnesotan might say “new shoes.”
[i] is like “neat.”
[I] is like “knit.”

Beautiful, right?  None of that “open” or “closed,” “long” or “short” confusing garbage.  One symbol, one sound.  We all agree, we all know what it means, we all sing it the same.

And that’s why I love the International Phonetic Alphabet.

I hope you do, too.

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2 Responses to the beauty, the wonder: the International Phonetic Alphabet

  1. Actually, English also changed its pronunciation substantially after its spelling was more-or-less fixed as well, a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift: you're performing 12th-century English, you can pretty much pronounce it as if it were Latin and be 90% right (although you're right about the TH sound).

  2. Amelia NP says:

    I love that link!Language and the use of diction are going to have to get their own posts…

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