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The ASCII Phonetic Alphabet

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

The International Phonetic Alphabet is the most popular system for writing phonetic transcriptions of English words. It is used in most of the major dictionaries, coursebooks, even on Wikipedia. However, it has a disadvantage: IPA symbols (like ə or ɔ) are not very easy to type on a computer.

There are two problems with the IPA:

  1. Not all fonts include IPA symbols. If you want to type IPA-based transcriptions, you need to use a font which supports the IPA. Fortunately, all modern operating systems have at least one font with IPA symbols. In many (most?) cases, you won’t have to do anything – even if your current font is missing IPA symbols, many applications will automatically “borrow” missing symbols from a font which has them (this is called font substitution). These borrowed characters may not match the look of your current font, but at least they will be readable. For best results, you should select an IPA-enabled font in your application. (This page has a list of IPA-enabled fonts available on various operating systems.) In general, as of 2013, the problem of IPA fonts is largely solved.
  2. Keyboards don’t have keys for IPA symbols. You need some kind of software that will provide keyboard shortcuts (hotkeys) or on-screen buttons to type IPA symbols. Currently, the easiest and fastest way to type IPA transcriptions on a PC is the TypeIt App for Windows ($12.50). There is also, which is slower but free. (I am the author of both solutions.)

Both these problems can be solved – with the right software, it is possible to type IPA-based transcriptions efficiently on a PC. But you can also avoid them altogether. How? By using an alternative transcription system which uses symbols available on a normal keyboard.

Michal Ryszard Wojcik and I created such a system in the 1990s. We called it the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet, because the basic set of letters and symbols supported by computers is called ASCII characters. (“ASCII” is pronounced /ˈæski/.)

Instead of special symbols like ʒ or æ, the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet uses regular symbols like Z or @. Here is a table with all the symbols of the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet. A special printable version is also available.

IPA ASCII examples listen
ʌ ^ cup, luck AM
ɑ: a: arm, father AM BR
æ @ cat, black AM
e e met, bed AM
ə .. away, cinema AM
ɜ:ʳ e:(r) turn, learn AM BR
ɪ i hit, sitting AM
i: i: see, heat AM
ɒ o hot, rock AM BR
ɔ: o: call, four AM BR
ʊ u put, could AM
u: u: blue, food AM
ai five, eye AM
au now, out AM
ei say, eight AM
Ou go, home AM
ɔɪ oi boy, join AM
eəʳ e..(r) where, air AM BR
ɪəʳ i..(r) near, here AM BR
ʊəʳ u..(r) pure, tourist AM BR
IPA ASCII examples listen
b b bad, lab AM
d d did, lady AM
f f find, if AM
g g give, flag AM
h h how, hello AM
j j yes, yellow AM
k k cat, back AM
l l leg, little AM
m m man, lemon AM
n n no, ten AM
ŋ N sing, finger AM
p p pet, map AM
r r red, try AM
s s sun, miss AM
ʃ S she, crash AM
t t tea, getting AM
tS check, church AM
θ th think, both AM
ð TH this, mother AM
v v voice, five AM
w w wet, window AM
z z zoo, lazy AM
ʒ Z pleasure, vision AM
dZ just, large AM
special symbols
IPA ASCII what it means
ˈ '

' is placed before the stressed syllable in a word. For example, ['kon tr@kt] is pronounced like this, and [k..n 'tr@kt] like that. More about word stress.

ʳ (r) (r) means that r is always pronounced in American English, but not in British English. For example, if we say that far is pronounced [fa:(r)], we mean that it is pronounced [fa:r] in American English, and [fa:] in British English. However, in BrE, r will be heard if (r) is followed by a vowel. For example, far gone is pronounced ['fa: 'gon] in BrE, but far out is pronounced ['fa:r 'aut].
i i(:)

i(:) is simply a shorter version of i: – examples: very ['veri(:)], ability [.. 'biliti(:)], create [kri(:) 'eit], previous ['pri:vi(:)..s].

əl .l

.l represents either a syllabic l or, less commonly, [..l]. Syllabic l is an l which acts as a vowel and forms a syllable, as in little ['lit.l], uncle ['^Nk.l].

ən .n

.n represents either a syllabic n or, less commonly, [..n]. Syllabic n is an n which acts as a vowel and forms a syllable, as in written ['rit.n], listen ['lis.n].

“Should I use IPA or ASCII?”

It’s hard to give a definite answer. I have used both systems. Each has its strengths: ASCII can be typed very fast (though with the TypeIt app, the difference is small), and doesn’t require any special software. IPA is a recognized standard and is more readable and visually pleasing.

  • When communicating with other people, you should probably use IPA because it is a universally recognized standard.
  • If you’re going to use IPA regularly (for example, in your SRS items), make sure you have an easy way to type IPA symbols. Using an inefficient method can greatly increase the time it takes you to add a single SRS item, which will slow down your learning process. Conversely, an efficient typing method can mean that you add 30% more items in a given period. It can make a big difference in the long run!