International Phonetic Alphabet: Sounds & Symbols

Instructor: Derek Hughes

Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.

Speech scientists, linguists, and speech pathologists use an alphabet called the International Phonetic Alphabet when referring to speech sounds. This lesson will explain what this alphabet is and how the symbols in it correspond to speech sounds.

The International Phonetic Alphabet

If you think of the English language (as an example), you probably realize that our 26 letter alphabet does not accurately depict the various speech sounds we make when talking. Some of the sounds in the English language are made by combining consonants and vowels, while some letters pull double duty and are used to write more than one sound. This is true for many languages around the world. Therefore, in order to have a tool to discuss the wide variety of human languages, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was created.

The IPA is a collection of symbols that correspond to the wide variety of speech sounds heard in human languages. It is not used for any single language, and not all the symbols in the IPA will be found in any one language. It is a catch-all tool that speech scientists, linguists, and speech pathologists can use to discuss and research speech sounds. This lesson will introduce you to the International Phonetic Alphabet and explain how the speech sounds are organized within it.

Organization of the International Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic alphabet is not so much a list of sounds as it is two separate, distinct charts. One of these charts is for consonantal sounds, those sounds typically associated with consonants, and the other is for vowel sounds. Both charts are organized by where in the mouth the sounds are made. As you will see, speaking is not as simple as just thinking a sound and then producing it. There are a lot of tiny muscles and actions that go into producing even the shortest words.

Just to note, there are many variations and additions to the various symbols of the phonetic alphabet which indicate alterations to a sound. As this lesson serves as an introduction, you will not see any of these smaller variations included. Instead, this lesson focuses on the broader categories of speech sounds and their organization in the phonetic alphabet.


Before you read any further, stop and make the following sounds - the 'f' sound, the 'th' sound, the 's' sound, the 'sh' sound, and the 'x' sound. You may not realize, but you just produced an entire category of sounds from the English language (the unvoiced fricatives). There are three distinct ways to look at consonant sounds in the IPA. These are the location of the sound, how air flows from your mouth when producing the sound, and the activity of your vocal cords when making the sound. When you combine all three categories, you get one unique, distinct sound.

Consonants of the International Phonetic Alphabet

First, sounds are categorized by where in the mouth the are produced. The categories, moving from the front of the mouth all the way to the throat, are: Bilabial, Labiodental, Dental, Alveolar, Postalveolar, Retroflex, Palatal, Velar, Uvular, Pharygeal, and Glottal. These categories describe which articulator in the mouth is used and where.

Major Articulators of Speech

In the sounds you made above, you produced a labiodental sound 'f,' dental sound 'th,' alveolar sound 's,' postalveolar sound 'sh,' and velar sound 'x.' Produce these sounds again and pay close attention to where your tongue is and the shape of your mouth. This will help you see what some of the categories above mean.

Next, consonants are organized by how air flows from your mouth when producing them. These categories are: Plosive, Nasal, Trill, Tap, Fricative, Lateral Fricative, Approximant, and Lateral Approximant.

To experience the differences between several of these categories, make a 't' sound (a plosive), an 'n' sound (a nasal), and an 's' sound (a fricative). These sounds are all made with the tongue just behind the teeth, but use different airflow to alter the sound.

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