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Introduction to phonetic transcription

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

With phonetic transcriptions, dictionaries tell you about the pronunciation of words. In English dictionaries, phonetic transcriptions are necessary, because the spelling of an English word does not tell you how you should pronounce it.

Phonetic transcriptions are usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each English sound has its own symbol. (You can take a look at a chart with all the English sounds and their IPA symbols.)

For example, the IPA-based phonetic transcription of no is noʊ, and the transcription of do is duː. Note that in spelling, these words are similar. They both end in the letter o. But their phonetic transcriptions are different, because they are pronounced differently.

Phonetic transcription is usually given in brackets, like this: /noʊ/, /du:/. In a dictionary, it looks like this:

dictionary definition of the word 'image'

(By the way, not all dictionaries give the pronunciations of words. If you are serious about learning English, you should buy a dictionary which has this information.)

Word stress

When a word has many syllables, one of them is always pronounced more strongly. This is called word stress, and we say that the syllable is stressed. For example, in the word become, the stressed syllable is come. If the stressed syllable was be, become would be pronounced like this.

Dictionaries tell you which syllable is stressed. The most popular system is to put a vertical line (ˈ) before the stressed syllable in the phonetic transcription of the word. For example, the transcription for become is /bɪˈkʌm/.

If a word has only one syllable (examples: pen, watch), dictionaries usually do not put the ˈ stress mark before it. So they don’t write /ˈpen/ — they simply write /pen/.

Some dictionaries use other systems for showing word stress. For example, they may put ˈ after the stressed syllable, or they may underline the stressed syllable.

A demonstration

Have a look at our demonstration of the phonetic transcription system. You can read the transcriptions of some English words and listen to their pronunciations at the same time.

Representing differences between British and American English

Many words are pronounced differently in British and American English. Of course, these differences must be reflected in phonetic transcriptions. There are two basic ways to do this:

  • Separate transcriptions for British and American English, for example:

    dot BrE /dɒt/, AmE /dɑ:t/
    farm BrE /fɑ:m/, AmE /fɑ:rm/
    go BrE /gəʊ/, AmE /goʊ/
    mother BrE /ˈmʌðəʳ/, AmE /ˈmʌðər/ (or /ˈmʌðɚ/)

    This system is used in advanced learner’s dictionaries from Longman, Oxford and Cambridge. The problem with this system is that you have to write two transcriptions for most words, which takes up a lot of space.

  • One “compromise” transcription for both British and American English. This is done by using mostly British phoneme symbols plus the ʳ symbol.

    dot /dɒt/
    farm /fɑ:ʳm/
    go /goʊ/
    mother /ˈmʌðəʳ/

    In this system, transcriptions are shorter, but the reader has to know that, in American English, ɒ changes to ɑ: and ʳ changes to r. This system is used e.g. in the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary and in many places on Antimoon.

Should you learn phonetic transcription?

Today, nearly all good English dictionaries have audio recordings. If you can listen to any English word as it is pronounced by a native speaker, why should you care about phonetic transcriptions? Here are a few reasons:

  • If you want to have good English pronunciation, you have to learn and practice all the English sounds anyway. If you’re going to learn each sound in the English sound chart, you might as well learn its symbol – it doesn’t take that much extra effort.
  • When listening to a recording, sometimes you’re not sure whether you heard ʊ or ə, ɒ or ʌ, s or z, etc. This can happen due to lack of experience, due to poor audio quality in a particular recording, or both. Reading the transcription can make things clear because it lets you see all the sounds in a word.
  • Dictionaries have more transcriptions than recordings. For example, the transcriptions may show two ways to pronounce a word, but the recording will show only one. If you can read phonetic transcriptions, you can get more information out of a dictionary.
  • On the Internet, people use phonetic transcription to discuss pronunciation problems. If you want to join the discussion, or ask questions, you have to know the transcription system.
  • There are situations when you cannot listen to sound – for example, the computer you’re using has no speakers, you don’t want to disturb other people, you are in a noisy environment and can’t hear the sound, you only have access to a paper dictionary, etc. Even if you can use audio, a glance at the transcription can be faster than clicking a button and listening to a recording.

In short, you can learn good English pronunciation without knowing the IPA symbols for English sounds, but learning those symbols is not that hard and you get a few nice benefits in return.

Warning: Don’t trust phonetic transcriptions too much

While phonetic transcriptions are an incredibly useful tool, they can also be misleading. To show you what I mean, here are three examples of bad knowledge that you can learn if you trust transcriptions blindly:

Falsehood #1: “There is a significant difference between the first vowel in away and the vowel in bird.” Dictionary transcriptions use /ə/ for the away vowel and /ɜː/ for the bird vowel, which suggests there is an important difference in how they sound. In reality, that is not the case, and bird should be transcribed /bəːʳd/.

Falsehood #2: “The British and American pronunciations of the vowel in cat are the same.” Dictionaries use the same /æ/ symbol for both. In reality, the British cat-vowel is more open and should probably be transcribed /a/.

Falsehood #3: “The American pronunciation of the first vowel in hero is similar to the British pronunciation of the first vowel in mirror.” Dictionaries use /ˈhɪərəʊ/ for the British transcription of hero and /ˈhɪroʊ/ for the American one. This suggests the American pronunciation is similar to British mirror /ˈmɪrə/, which is not true. A better way to represent the American pronunciation of hero would probably be /ˈhiroʊ/.

Another problem is that phonetic transcriptions can be out of date. Sometimes they give old pronunciations that are rare in today’s English. This problem usually concerns British transcriptions. For example, some dictionaries transcribe moor as /mʊə/ even though the word is normally pronounced /mɔː/ in modern British English. Audio recordings are usually more up-to-date.

Here’s a good rule: Don’t take phonetic transcriptions as gospel. If your ears tell you one thing and dictionary transcriptions tell you another, always trust your ears.