The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system which represents the sounds of spoken language. It was developed by the International Phonetic Association in order to provide a standardised system that can be used by foreign language learners, teachers, linguists, therapists, etc., world-wide.
It is based on the Latin alphabet and includes more than one hundred letters, 52 diacritics (symbols and marks) and four prosody (= the study of rhythm, intonation, stress, and related attributes in speech) marks. It represents those qualities of speech that are distinctive (= characteristic and possible to differentiate) in spoken language: phonemes (= the smallest sound unit), intonation (= the variation of tone used when speaking), and the separation of words and syllables.
Very often, English words are pronounced differently than their spelling might suggest. If you want to know how a word is pronounced correctly, you can check dictionaries for phonetic transcriptions. These phonetic transcriptions use letters and symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet. The transcription exactly tells you how a word is pronounced.
Besides the letters that represent consonants and vowels, there are symbols and marks that indicate qualities as length, tone, stress, and intonation. For example:
- The symbol ː behind a vowel indicates that the vowel needs to be pronounced longer than usual: the word "peak" is transcribed as /piːk/.
- The mark ' in front of a syllable indicates that the following syllable needs to be stressed: the word "alphabet" is transcribed as /ˈæl.fə.bɛt/.
For more details on the International Phonetic Alphabet as well as an overview of the letters and symbols, visit Wikipedia's page on the IPA.
To learn more about phonetics and the sounds of American English, go to a website by the Universtiy of Iowa.