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The IPA Phonetic Chart for Creative Writing

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The IPA Phonetic Chart encompasses all of the sounds it is possible for the human vocal tract to make, both consonants and vowels. While not all of the sounds are actually used in English, knowing the chart can help people searching for a word with just the right sound.

Think of it as like a rhyming dictionary, but with sounds instead of word endings. You can find the full version here. The reason it's so useful for writers who focus on sound is because it lays out the basic relationships between a sound and that sound's physicality.

Consonants

Consonants are described with three properties: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voice.

Place of articulation

Consonants are created by obstructing the airflow when speaking. The place of articulation indicates where the air is being stopped.

bilabial
You press your lips together
labiodental
Your bottom lip touches your top teeth
dental
The tip of your tongue sticks out between nearly clenched teeth
alveolar
Your tongue touches the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth
palato-alveolar
Your tongue touches the back of your alveolar ridge (the roof of your mouth, near the middle)
velar
Your tongue touches your soft palate (the roof of your mouth, in the rear)
glottal
Your vocal cords contract to restrict the flow of air.

Manner of articulation

Consonants gain further character based on how the airstream is closed off and where it's routed when pronouncing them.

nasal
The air is routed through your nose
plosive
The air is completely stopped and then released, a bit like a small explosion
fricative
The air is only partial stopped, usually resulting in a hissing-like sound
tap/flap
The articulators (whatever it is that stops the air, usually tongue, but can include lips or vocal cords) taps the place of articulation only briefly
approximant
Not quite a vowel, but not really a full consonant either

Voice

Finally, consonants are described by whether or not your vocal cords are vibrating.

voiced
Your vocal cords are vibrating.
voiceless
Your vocal cords are not vibrating.

Putting a shortened English version together, you get:

(My apologies. I have yet to think of a good way to make this table fit. I have indeed thought of a way, but have yet to implement it. Excelsior!)

Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Palato-avleolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasals m n ŋ
Plosives p b t d k g ʔ
Fricatives f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h
Approx. ɹ j w
Tap, Flap ɾ
Lateral Approx. l
voiced voiceless not in English impossible

(Notes for the purists: Neither x, hw, the affricates, nor ɦ are included. x is not used in the majority of dialects, hw and the affricates are typically transcribed as consonant pairs, and ɦ has no minimal pairs with h. Also, h only appears once, despite its variable/minimal phonation, and w is in its spot because it has to go somewhere. Some things just aren't as important to creative writers as they are to linguists.)

(On second thought, I'll include the affricates in the list below for those interested.)

Since not all of the letters in the chart mean what they do in English, and some aren't even used in English, here's a quick rundown:

Nasals

m - voiced bilabial nasal
Same as in English (man, ham)
n - voiced alveolar nasal
Same as in English (no, tin)
ŋ - voiced velar nasal
Same as some "ng"s in English (sing, thing)

Plosives

p - voiceless bilabial plosive
Same as in English (pike, tap)
b - voiced bilabial plosive
Same as in English (bike, tab)
t - voiceless alveolar plosive
Same as in English (tie, mat)
d - voiced alveolar plosive
Same as in English (die, mad)
k - voiceless velar plosive
Same as in English (kill, back)
g - voiced velar plosive
Same as in English (gill, bag)
ʔ - voiceless glottal plosive
Never spelled in English. It's the catch in your breath in the middle of "uh-oh"

Fricatives

f - voiceless labiodental fricative
Same as in English (fan, waif)
v - voiced labiodental fricative
Same as in English (van, wave)
θ - voiceless dental fricative
Same as some "th"s in English (thigh)
ð - voiced dental fricative
Same as some "th"s in English (thy)
s - voiceless alveolar fricative
Same as in English (sap, fuss)
z - voiced alveolar fricative
Same as in English (zap, fuzz)
ʃ - voiceless palato-alveolar fricative
Same as English "sh" (Confucian, bash)
ʒ - voiced palato-alveolar fricative
Spelled all kinds of crazy ways in English (confusion, seizure, beige)
h - voiceless glottal fricative
Same as in English (ham)

Approximants

ɹ - voiced alveolar approximant
Same as English "r" (rank, boar, pirate)
j - voiced palatal approximant
Same as English "y" (yank, boy)
w - voiced velar approximant
Same as English "w" (wank, bow)
l - voiced alveolar lateral approximant
Same as in English (lanky, bowl, pilot)

Affricates (combined consonants)

- voiceless post-alveolar affricate
Same as most English "ch", "tch" (chair, catch)
- voiced post-alveolar affricate
Same as most English "j" (edge, joy)

Vowels

Next, vowels are also described by three basic characteristics: height, backness, and roundedness. English also has a fourth characteristic, whether a vowel is tense/lax. Things get rather complicated because while consonants mostly stay the same between dialects of English, vowels are all over the place. The examples below may not necessarily apply to the way any given person speaks English.

Height

The higher your tongue is in the mouth, the higher the vowel. Instead of calling the highest vowels “high vowels,” linguists call them “close vowels.” And “open vowels,” not “low vowels,” are the lowest.

Backness

The definition of backness is, on one hand, how far back your tongue is in your mouth when you pronounce the vowel. On the other hand, that's not actually the definition. Linguists use the frequency of the sound pronounced as the “real” definition, but tongue position is good enough of an approximation. (What happened is that they realized the harmonic frequencies, a.k.a. formants, were a more useful description of vowels.)

Roundedness

If you round your lips to pronounce a vowel, the vowel is round. If your lips aren't round when you pronounce a vowel, the vowel isn't.

Tense/Lax

English has paired groups of vowels which are phonologically distinct. That is, even though their vowels are the same according to the first three characteristics, “suit”/“soot” and “beat”/“bit” are different words. The tense/lax distinction roughly correlates with the long vowel/short vowel distinction taught in grade school.

And now, the chart, notes, and explanations:

Front Near-front Central Near-back Back
Close i y ɨ ʉ u
Near-close ɪ ɪ̈ ʊ
Close-mid e ø ɘ ɵ ɤ o
Mid ə
Open-mid ɛ œ ɜ ʌ ɔ
Near-open æ ɐ
Open a ɶ ɑ ɒ
unrounded rounded

(Note for the purists: All vowels with no rounded pair are listed as unrounded for simplicity's sake. Also, vowels not typically found in any English dialects will be removed once I have more time.)

Because of the wide variety in vowel pronunciation, rather than have lists for each symbol on there, I'm going to organize by dialect (just RP for now, more when I get the time). I'm also going to only use a few signpost vowels. For creative writers, being able to recognize the sounds by ear is more important than knowing where everything fits on a chart. (If you're curious, A full list can be found here.) It's also not on the chart, but tense vowels are usually marked by the ː symbol.

Received Pronunciation (Upper-Class British)

i - close front unrounded lax vowel
happy, city
- close front unrounded tense vowel
fleece, meat
- close back rounded tense vowel
through, you
ɪ - near-close near-front unrounded lax vowel
sit, kit
ʊ - close back rounded lax vowel
foot, put, hood
e - close-mid front unrounded lax vowel
doesn't usually appear alone; combined with ɪ it's found in date, pain
ə - mid central vowel
comma, about
ɛ - open-mid front unrounded lax vowel
bed, dress
ɔː - open-mid back rounded tense vowel
sort, warm
ɐ - near-open central lax vowel
run, won, flood
a - open front unrounded lax vowel
doesn't usually appear alone; combined with ʊ it's found in now, trout
ɑː - open back unrounded tense vowel
palm, father
ɒ - open back rounded lax vowel
lot, not, wasp

Exercises

It's a lot of information, but these charts can help writers. Poets have long known that it's possible to create sonic effects through more than just meter, strict consonance/alliteration, or the various kinds of rhyme. Like most things artistic, learning how this works depends on trying it out, and here are some exercises which can help with that.

Expanded Consonance

  1. Write a few lines using a predominance of plosives.
  2. Write a few more lines using a predominance of fricatives. Keep the meter, rhythm, and length as close to the first as possible.
  3. Read both sets of lines out loud, paying attention to the sounds more than the meaning.

Consonance Switch

If you're hitting a certain consonant hard, but either can't think of the right word or you don't want to overuse a letter, you can keep two of the consonant characteristics the same while varying the others.

The p / b and d / t combinations are talked about a lot, and those are voiced/voiceless pairs. You can also keep voice the same while varying the other characteristics.

For example, if you write a few lines using only voiced alveolar consonants you get the grouping n / d / z / ɾ / l. This will give a passage a different feel than if you use only voiced plosives: b / d / g. Moving between the groups can create a subtle gradient of sound akin to chord changes in music.

  1. Write a passage using predominantly voiced alveolar consonants.
  2. Write a passage using predominantly voiced plosives. Keep the meter, rhythm, and length as close to the first as possible.
  3. Read both sets of lines out loud, paying attention to the sounds more than the meaning.

Tense/Lax Variation

  1. Write a few lines using only tense (long) vowels.
  2. Write a few more lines using only lax (short) vowels. Keep the meter, rhythm, and length as close to the first as possible.
  3. Read both sets of lines out loud, paying attention to the sounds more than the meaning.

Height Contrast

  1. Write a few lines using only close/near-close vowels.
  2. Write a few more lines using only open/near-open vowels. Keep the meter, rhythm, and length as close to the first as possible.
  3. Read both sets of lines out loud, paying attention to the sounds more than the meaning.

Analysis

  1. Read Edgar Allan Poe's “Annabel Lee”.
  2. Regardless of what you think of the poem itself, make a list of the primary consonance in each of the stanzas.
  3. Next to the list, write down whether the predominant emotion of that stanza is “hope/love”, “death/despair,” or “both.” You should find some correspondences.
  4. Do you find the pairing of sound and imagery effective? Why or why not?

There's a lot of write-and-read here. Learning about the sounds of language from a creative standpoint, rather than an academic linguistic standpoint, is a lot like ear training for musicians. You have to know how the chords interact, yes, but if you can't hear them interact you won't understand them intuitively. Have fun and good luck.

The Google says...

http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/ - lists of minimal pairs
http://www.esl2000.com/speak/pairs/consonants.html - more minimal pairs