Things you should know about phonetic transcription
It is natural to assume that phonetic transcriptions are precise instructions on how to pronounce English words. I remember a time when I thought so, too. Over the years, I have realized that they are more like statistics: they can lie, and when they don’t lie, they don’t tell the whole truth.
Here are the things you should know about phonetic transcriptions if you want to avoid getting confused:
The same symbol can correspond to different sounds, depending on the
Most dictionaries have the following American transcriptions:
/kɔːrt/. In all these words, the
ɔːsymbol is used*. But when
ɔːis followed by
r, as in or and court, it sounds very different from the
ɔːin awe and caught. In general, when
ɔːis followed by
r, it represents a different, higher sound.
Words like pin
/spaɪ/are all transcribed with the same
psymbol. But the
pin pin and pie sounds different from the
pin spin and spy. When
pstarts a stressed syllable, as in pin and pie, it is aspirated (followed by a breath of air); when it doesn’t start a syllable, as in spin and spy, it is not aspirated.
In most dictionaries, the American transcriptions for
/tiː/all have the same
tsymbol**. But the
tin water and party should be pronounced as a “flap t”, which sounds very different from the regular t in turn and tea. Which
t’s are flapped? The rules are not simple and you will need a fair amount of listening experience to get the hang of it.
Phonetic transcriptions ignore such differences because they are not necessary for being understood – if you say pin and spin with the same kind of
p, you will sound a bit weird, but people will still understand you. (For more information on which differences are covered by phonetic transcriptions, see the note to the right.) The problem is when you want to go from “understandable pronunciation” to “clear pronunciation” (more about pronunciation levels). Dictionary transcriptions just don’t have enough detail to help you achieve that goal!
- Most dictionaries have the following American transcriptions: awe
A symbol in a British transcription can mean something else in an American transcription. Examples:
ɪrsequence is found in the American transcriptions for words like mirror
/nɪr/, and in the British transcription for mirror
/'mɪrə/. But what the dictionary means by
ɪris different in each case: the American
ɪris higher than the British
irwould probably be a better symbol for it. (Compare mirror in American and British English.)
Dictionaries use the same
aɪsymbol for the vowel in eye in BrE and AmE. But the eye-vowel in modern RP starts with a vowel which is more similar to
ɑːas in are, so the British symbol for it should perhaps be
ɑɪ. (Compare eye in American and British English.)
Two different symbols can correspond to the same sound.
This is the case with the British symbols
ə– as in fur
/ə'weɪ/. The difference in symbols suggests that these are two different vowels, but the only difference between those sounds is length – fur is actually pronounced
[fəː]. (The American sounds
ərare also identical in quality – see next item.)
A sequence of two symbols can correspond to one sound.
The British transcriptions of words such as air
/skweə/contain the sequence
eə, which suggests that there is an
evowel followed by an
əvowel. In modern RP, however, the vowel in air is simply a longer version of the
ein bed – it is quite constant from start to end, so the
eːsymbol would be more suitable.
The American transcriptions of words like fur
/bɜːrd/suggest you should first say a vowel,
ɜː, then add
r. In reality, there is no sequence of sounds – to say fur, you should start pronouncing
f, like so. In other words, fur is
/fr̩ː/and bird is
/br̩ːd/. (The vertical line means that the
ris syllabic – it acts as a vowel.) The same goes for the
ərsequence in words like never and perhaps: there is no
ə, only a syllabic
r. (See also my blog post about a similar issue concerning
- The British transcriptions of words such as air
Transcriptions in English dictionaries do not strictly adhere to the IPA standard.
English dictionaries use symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet,
but some of the symbols are used differently from their official definitions.*
For example, most dictionaries transcribe red as
/red/. If you listen to standard recordings for the sounds represented by the symbols
[r], you will find that
[e]doesn’t sound like the vowel in bed (it sounds “higher”, i.e. more like
[r]sounds nothing like the first consonant in red (it sounds like the “hard r” used in Spanish, Italian, Russian, etc.). If you wanted to transcribe the word red using the “proper” IPA symbols, it would look like this:
/ɹɛd/. Why do dictionaries use the wrong symbols then? 1 Because
eare easier to type and to read than
ɛ, and 2 because certain conservative British accents in the first half of the 20th century actually used the sounds
[r], so the symbols
rwere not seen as completely inappropriate when the transcription system was developed in the 1960s.
Transcriptions are based on exceptionally clear, careful speech.
For some words, phonetic transcriptions give a kind of idealized pronunciation that is almost never heard
outside of dictionary recordings. Here are a few (American) examples:
/kənˌgrætʃə'leɪʃənz/. It is quite hard to find real-life recordings of continuous speech where these words are pronounced like that – the usual pronunciations are
The transcriptions do not always match the recordings.
Occasionally, when you look up a word in a dictionary, the audio recording contains a different pronunciation from the one
shown by the phonetic transcription. This can happen when a word has more than one possible pronunciation and
the speaker chose a different one (and nobody caught it during the recording session).
It doesn’t happen very often, but don’t be surprised if, for example,
the transcription says
/dɪ'teɪl/, but you hear
You cannot assume that phonetic transcriptions in dictionaries will clearly show you all the important details of English pronunciation. Because the system is designed to use the smallest possible number of symbols, the same symbol is often reused to represent several sounds – the exact phonetic value depends on the context in which the symbol appears. What’s more, the number of symbols in a transcription does not always correspond to the number of sounds.
If you are a beginner, transcriptions will give you a basic idea – just enough to stop you from confusing one word with another – but to get the full picture, you have to know how the various symbols (or sequences of symbols) are pronounced in different contexts. This knowledge can only come from extensive listening.