Phonemes, Phonetics, and the IPA chart.

Those of us who grew up speaking a language that uses an alphabet are taught to think of language being made up of “letters” and that “letters,” depending on where they are, sound different.

Let’s consider the letter /p/.

People vs. Hop vs. Shipping

In the first case we have an initial /p/ that comes along with some air. Say the word with your hand in front of your mouth and you’ll feel that hair.

In the second case we have a final position /p/ which really isn’t a lot like the first /p/ but more like a closing of the mouth.

In the third case, we have a /p/ like the first one sans the air.

So these are 3 different sounds, but they’re all /p/’s…

Here we see the divide between phonetics and phonemics. 

Phonemics concerns itself with groups of sounds that languages treat as the same and with their pronunciation as different depending on where it is in a word. Those different sounds are the concern of phonetics.

How do we find a phoneme?

We find phonemes through “minimal pairs.” A minimal pair is a set of two words that are exactly the same except in one sound. If that difference changes the meaning of the word, then we have a new phoneme.

For example:

Moose vs Noose

They’re exactly the same except in one sound, that initial nasal consonant, and they mean two very different things.

Let’s try something else:

Going back to the /p/ example, take the first and third variations of /p/ and say the word “potato.” Think of the way the Minions from the Despicable Memovies say the word “potato,” if you can’t imagine the word with the 3rd variation.

(Normal) Potato vs. (Minion) Potato

Question: Does that change the meaning of the word?

It doesn’t; and that’s a very good indication that these two phones, or sounds, are parts of the same phoneme.

Phonemes are the easy part, most of the time. The hard part are the phones.

Linguists have their own alphabet to describe sounds, commonly referred to as the IPA Chart.

The IPA is divided into two main sections: Vowels and Consonants

The identified vowels are 28 and are distributed according to where and how they are produced. “Closed” and “Open” refer to how open or closed the mouth is. That [i] you see on the top left is the /e/ in “me.” That [a] you see at the bottom left is the Bostonian /a/, as in “car.” “Front” and “Back” refer to the place of elocution. That [u] in in the top right is the /ou/ in “Lou.” Try it out!

The consonants are many more, about 60.

As the notice says at the bottom, the consonants on the left side of each cell are voiced; an the ones are the right are voiceless (or unvoiced). [d] and [t] are the same sound save that one requires the use of one’s vocal cords and the other doesn’t. Give it a shot!

Moving left to right, you make a similar journey as you do with the vowels, starting with consonants made at one’s lips all the way to the glottis.

Moving up and down, you get different kind of consonants. “Plosives” are sounds made with a single movement, sounds you can’t sustain.

Nasals are sounds made with vibrations in the nose.

Trills continuous repetitions of one sounds.

Taps are like trills except they happen only once.

Fricatives are sounds you can sustain.

Lateral Fricatives are sounds made by sending air through the sides of the mouth, determining the flow with one’s tongue.

Approximants are hard to describe, but it’s good to think of them as continuous sounds that are like nasals but occur in the mouth and not in the nose.

Lateral approximants are approximants that occur at the sides of the mouth.

Here are some examples that might help!

The lateral approximant [l] is the /l/ in English’s “love.”

The approximant [ɹ] is the /r/ in English’s “rob.”

The fricative [ɸ] is one of the ways you can pronounce ふ /fu/ in Japanese.

The fricative [ð] is the /th/ in English’s “the.”

The flap [ɾ] is one of ways, and probably the standard way, one pronounces the phoneme /r/ in Japanese. (in らりるれろ)

The nasal [ɲ] is what in Spanish is written as /ñ/.

This is a great site where you can listen to the phones in different parts of a syllable.

This is a chart where you can see and download the chart itself, including the digraphs and annotations that we didn’t cover here.