LINGUIST List 12.822

Fri Mar 23 2001

Review: Handbook of the IPA

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  1. Linnea Micciulla, Review of: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Message 1: Review of: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2001 19:15:41 -0500
From: Linnea Micciulla <>
Subject: Review of: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association

International Phonetic Association (1999)
Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A
Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet
Cambridge University Press
204 pages

Reviewed by Linnea Micciulla, Boston University

The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association
(hereafter, Handbook) targets a broad readership,
ranging from professional phoneticians to non-linguists.
It is a multi-purpose tool, including such diverse uses
as "a way to show pronunciation in a dictionary, to
record a language in linguistic field work, to form the
basis of a writing system for a language, or to annotate
acoustic and other displays in the analysis of speech"
(page 3). The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was
originally adopted for the purpose of facilitating
teaching and learning the pronunciation of a language.
The Handbook aims to serve as a reference for the IPA,
and clearly states its two major goals: 1) it "presents
the basics of phonetic analysis so that the principles
underlying the Alphabet can be readily understood" and
2) it "exemplifies the use of each of the phonetic
symbols comprising the Alphabet." In the Evaluation
section of this review, I will discuss both the
accessibility of the Handbook to its target audiences,
and the extent to which it accomplishes its goals.


The book is divided into three parts, each of which may
be more or less relevant to users with varying degrees
of background in phonetics, or who have differing end
uses in mind. Part one is an introduction to the IPA
chart, written for readers with little or no familiarity
with phonetics.

Part one is sub-divided into ten sections. The first
section begins by explaining briefly why the IPA is
needed and what its uses are. The second section
continues with an explanation of the theoretical
assumptions underlying the IPA Chart. Using examples
from both acoustic and articulatory phonetics, it gives
a high-level description of the basic divisions of the
IPA. The classifications of consonants and vowels
and their subsequent placement in the charts are
explained row by row, including the significance of shadings
and gaps. A sub-section on suprasegmentals discusses IPA
transcription for pitch movement and pitch height. The
use of diacritics to refine symbols is briefly illustrated,
and finally, those symbols that were not included in
previous discussions are explained. Throughout Section
two, phonetic concepts are introduced along with IPA

The third section, Guide to IPA notation, presents the
symbols according to their layout in the chart. It
gives one or two examples of each of the symbols, in
English and/or French whenever possible. When not
possible, another language is used, so that 51
languages exemplify the entire chart. A list of
these languages and the families they belong to is given
at the end of this section.

Section four provides a brief history of the phoneme and
the allophone, leading into Section five, which looks at
different types of transcription. Section six
demonstrates the flexibility of the IPA to accommodate
different transcriptions for a single language.

Section seven makes some recommendations about the
practical issues involved in working with the IPA,
ranging from how to refer to symbol that have no agreed
upon name, to representing the symbols through
handwriting, computers, and Braille. For naming the
symbols, the authors recommend the Phonetic Symbol Guide
by Pullum and Ladusaw (1996). Various sources for
Braille renderings of the IPA are given. Section eight
presents the rationale for the Extended IPA, and
explains the need for additional symbols that do not
form a part of the base IPA chart.

Sections nine and ten bring current phonological theory
into play, and examine what could be construed as
apparent weakness in the system, given the changes in
emphasis from segment to feature. Section nine looks at
the problem of segmentation, from several angles. In
Section ten, it is pointed out that the theory behind
the IPA is essentially one of sequential analysis, and
not one that considers the variety of domains applicable
to current theory. Phonological theory has not had much
effect on the IPA chart in the last 100 years, although
there have been slight modifications to the Principles
of the IPA to account for new theories.

Part two consists of "Illustrations" of 29 languages,
published in the Journal of the International Phonetic
Association between 1989 and 1997. These illustrations
account for the bulk of the text (pages 41-156). The
illustrations follow a general template for each of the
29 languages, including as a minimum sections devoted to
consonants, vowels, stress, conventions, transcription
of a passage, and an orthographic version of the
passage. With one exception, the same paragraph is
translated for all languages, then recorded by a native
speaker, and finally transcribed from the recording.
Additionally, one or more of the following topics may be
addressed: syllabification, tones, dialectical
differences, assimilation, suprasegmentals, prosody,
geminates, and romanization.

Of the 29 languages illustrated, 16 of these are Indo-
European, four are Afro-Asiatic, two are Austronesian,
three are Altaic (or one, since the classification of
Japanese and Korean as Altaic is under debate) two are
Sino-Tibetan, one is Niger-Congo and one is Uralic.

Part three, Appendices, provides additional information
regarding the IPA, including a historical background and
steps taken to move forward in a computer-driven age.
Part three consists of five appendices. Appendix 1 is
"The Principles of the International Phonetic
Association" as of 1989. It describes the uses of the
IPA and redefines the meaning of the symbols of the IPA
to include advances in feature phonology. It mentions
the aesthetic aspect of the symbols as well. The emphasis
is on representing contrasts that are distinctive within a
language. The current principles are actually very
similar to the original six principles put forth by the
International Phonetic Association in 1888, which also
emphasized the use of phonemes rather than allophones, and
discouraged the use of diacritics.

Appendix 2 deals with the computer coding of IPA
symbols. After providing a short history of how the
coding came about and giving a rationale for the final
selection, charts and tables provide the three digit IPA
number assigned to each symbol, along with the UCS and
AFII codes. Provisions are made for the development of
non-IPA symbols as well, in an effort to be forward-
looking and all-inclusive.

Appendix 3 presents extensions to the IPA in the form of
the ExtIPA Chart. This was developed by the
International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics
Association (ICPLA) to use for speech disorders. This
set has the advantage of each symbol having a name, in
addition to a symbol and a phonetic description.

Appendix 4 provides some background information about
the International Phonetic Association, including the
history of the association, the journal, the alphabet,
and current information about membership and contacts.
The final appendix provides charts including the symbols
and their numerical codes.

In addition to the physical text, the International
Phonetic Association has recordings of the
Illustrations, with links to downloadable files
available at:


The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association
assumes a daunting task in its effort to assist
phoneticians as well as lay people with their
comprehension and use of the IPA. In this regard, the
presentation of Part one is extremely well planned. The
authors of the Handbook begin the introductory sections
by laboriously explaining every new linguistic term as
it arises, but as the presumed novice reader builds up a
lexicon of linguistic terms, fewer words need
definitions and the text flows more smoothly. It is
written in such a way that a reader who is not initiated
in the field of linguistics can read Part one
sequentially and develop a basic understanding of the
phonetic principles behind the IPA, which is no small
feat in less than 40 pages. Readers who are already
well-versed in these concepts can go directly to the
illustrations in Part two for language-specific
information, or refer to Section three of Part one for a
quick reference on a symbol.

The Handbook's goal to exemplify each of the symbols of
the IPA is met in the brief Section three (pages 18-25) of
Part one, but only meets with partial success in the
Illustrations of Part two.

It is unclear what the rationale is for selecting the 29
languages that appear in the Illustrations. Quite
probably, they represent the most accessible or
instructive illustrations out of those appearing in the
Journal. Regardless, if the only purpose of the
illustration is to demonstrate the application of the
IPA, this could have been accomplished with only one or
two languages. The inclusion of 29 languages implies an
attempt at diversity, which should create a more
varied base of reference materials. However, there
are major gaps both from the perspective of language
families and IPA symbols. No Dravidian, Bantu, Nilo-
Saharan or Caucasian languages are represented in the
Illustrations, and notably, all of the indigenous
language families of the Americas are missing. From a
phonetic point of view, there is no demonstration of
clicks or lateral fricatives, and several uvular
consonants are omitted. It would add to the
completeness and the diversity of the work to illustrate
all of the sounds of the IPA, as well as to use a more
diverse selection of languages, in Part two.

Korean and American English are the only languages
providing both a broad and a narrow transcription. The
Korean writer provides a Korean phonetic transcription
as well. Most of the illustrations do not specify what
type of transcription has been used. There is also a
great discrepancy between languages regarding the amount
of information provided. The Hausa and Irish
illustrations, for example, provide information about
the languages' current and historic use, detailed
explanations of the segments found in their respective
inventories, and references for further study. Hausa
also includes some information about the style and
interpretation of the transcription, which adds to the
transcription's value as a model. Portuguese provides a
sizable section on prosody. Other languages, such as
Swedish, Turkish, Igbo, and Farsi have very little
explanatory text, most of which is under the
"Conventions" heading.

The illustration of American English does an exemplary
job of applying the issues brought to light in Part one,
particularly those regarding transcription. In American
English, Ladefoged presents the consonant and vowel
sounds found in a California dialect of English. His
data is taken from nine speakers, and illustrates the
possible applicability of several different symbols to
the same phoneme. This particular illustration is well-
suited to the novice user of the IPA.

As a guide to the IPA, the Handbook is unique. As
compared with its predecessor, "The Principles of the
International Phonetic Association" (1949) it shows
flexibility in adopting new symbols and adapting the
reasoning behind their use to theoretical advances. It
provides considerably more information in its
Illustrations (referred to as "Specimen" in the 1949
version). However, the Handbook would benefit by
including some of the languages from the 1949
Principles; for example, Xhosa satisfies the need to
illustrate a language containing clicks in its phonemic
inventory, and at the same time provides an illustration
of a Bantu language.

The stated goals of the Handbook are similar to those of
the Phonetic Symbol Guide (1996) in that both works aim
to serve as a guide to the IPA. While the Handbook is
designed to be read sequentially for general phonetic
theory, or used a reference for particular languages,
the Phonetic Symbol Guide is organized by symbol. If
the Phonetic Symbol Guide plays the role of a
dictionary, the Handbook resembles more closely a
teaching tool. One disadvantage to the Handbook's
format is that looking up individual symbols in is
difficult. The first part is organized by principles
and the second part by language, but there is no index
by symbol. For this reason, these two texts do make
good complementary resources.

The International Phonetic Association does an
outstanding job of presenting a great deal of
information in a relatively short book. While there are
improvements to be made, it is, in its current state, an
exceptional work. What is truly remarkable is the degree
to which the Handbook remains faithful to the principles
espoused in 1886, while still serving as an invaluable
resource, defining the acceptable IPA usage of today.


International Phonetic Association (1949, reprinted
1975) Principles of the International Phonetic
Association: being a description of the International
phonetic alphabet and the manner of using it,
illustrated by texts in 51 languages, London: The

Pullum, Geoffrey K. and William A. Ladusaw (1996)
Phonetic Symbol Guide, University of Chicago Press.

About the reviewer

Linnea Micciulla is in the Program in Applied
Linguistics at Boston University. Her research
interests include phonetics, phonology, Optimality
Theory, historical linguistics and Algonquian languages.
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