On the newsgroup alt.usage.english
we often want to represent the way we speak.
It's dangerous to make statements such as "bother rhymes with father"
or "father sounds like farther"
because, for many people, those statements aren't true.
Besides, nobody knows how you say bother and farther.
To get round the problem, we use a notation called
We all agree on what sound each symbol represents, regardless of our own accents.
ASCII IPA is similar to the International Phonetic Alphabet used in modern dictionaries,
but it uses the symbols available on most computer keyboards.
[For a full description of the International Phonetic Alphabet, see the Web site of the
International Phonetic Association at
The IPA symbols shown on this page are from the 1979 revision of the
International Phonetic Association's IPA Chart. For that reason, some of the
symbols shown may not be the same as those shown in later revisions of the
Phonetic Association's chart. In particular, 'turned-t' is no longer used for
the sound in 'tsk tsk', and lowercase iota is no longer used. (BC)]
This page is an introduction to ASCII IPA;
whether you already know conventional IPA or not, you should find ASCII IPA easy to learn here.
If you don't, please contact the webmaster
and suggest how this page might be improved.
Not every ASCII IPA symbol is shown here, only those used most often on alt.usage.english.
Other ASCII IPA symbols are used in descriptions of other languages
and on other newsgroups, such as the linguistics group sci.lang.
Each word in the following tables is used to demonstrate a particular sound.
Don't worry if other parts of the words sound different from the way they're pronounced
in your part of the world;
the idea is to demonstrate the sounds themselves, not the words they form.
Reading ASCII IPA is easier than writing it.
For one thing, no one will know if you make a mistake.
I suggest you learn to read it and then, when you can start to read words
without constantly referring to the tables below, start to write.
Reading ASCII IPA
ASCII IPA looks like this: /bIt/.
The /slashes/ are just a way of keeping the ASCII IPA in and the English spelling out.
All you have to do is to look up the three symbols "b", "I" and "t" in the tables below.
You'll find that /b/ and /t/ are just what you expect them to be,
assuming that you grew up speaking English,
and /I/ is the vowel in it and bridge.
Put it all together and you get the word bit.
Here's a more complicated example: /'fA:D@/. What are all those symbols?
Well, the apostrophe (') is a stress marker: it says that the following
syllable is stressed.
The colon (:) lengthens the preceding vowel.
The at-sign (@) represents a schwa, the neutral, unstressed vowel
in the words about and lemon.
Put it all together and you get the way I [Markus Laker] - a Brit who drops his R's - say father.
The word schwa, by the way, is pronounced /SwA:/.
You'll find it easier to learn ASCII IPA if you remember the following points:
In English spelling, some sounds are represented by combinations of letters,
such as the "th" in thin.
This never happens in ASCII IPA. One sound corresponds to one symbol.
The "th" in thin, for example, is represented by the symbol /T/.
In English spelling, some letters change their sounds depending on what follows.
The "a" in mat changes if you add an "e", making mate.
The "a" and the "g" in rag both change if you add an "e", making rage.
In this respect, ASCII IPA is a good deal easier than English spelling
because each symbol always represents the same sound.
(Actually, that's only nearly true.
There are a handful of symbols that do change the preceding symbol,
but always in a predictable way.
The only one you'll meet in the early days is the colon ":",
which we've already described.
You'll find the others in the other symbols table.)
Conversely, some sounds are represented in two or more ways in English spelling.
Consider the first consonants in the words cat and kitty
or fun and phone.
Again, ASCII IPA is easier: there's only one way of representing each sound.
In English spelling, the sound of a word doesn't depend on whether it's written
in capital letters or not.
ASCII IPA is different, and one of the most common mistakes is to get the case of a symbol wrong.
For example, /tin/ represents the word teen and /TIN/ represents thing.
Sometimes, sounds that we think of as a unit are really two or even three sounds in a row.
For example, say the word cold slowly to yourself.
Although we hear it as a single sound and write it with a single letter,
the "o" is really a glide from one sound to another.
Which two sounds those are depends on your accent.
Similarly, the vowel in cake is, very roughly, a glide from the vowel in egg
to the vowel in leek.
These two-in-one vowel sounds are called diphthongs.
Three-in-one vowel sounds are called triphthongs.
There's a table of them further down.
Writing ASCII IPA is easy once you can read it fairly fluently.
To represent a word in ASCII IPA, you have to break it down into its component sounds.
The word cat, for example, has the "k" sound from kick,
the "a" sound from pan and the "t" sound from hit.
All you do is to find the relevant sounds in the tables below,
pick the corresponding symbols, and write them one after another inside a pair of /slashes/.
So the ASCII IPA for cat is /k&t/.
For longer or more complex words, use an apostrophe (') to indicate that
the following syllable is stressed.
Use a colon (:) to indicate that the previous vowel is lengthened.
You can learn how to use the rest of the other symbols table
from other people as and when you need it.
Sometimes you should use [square brackets] rather than slashes when you write ASCII IPA.
But don't worry about that now;
learn the symbols and how to use them, and then read the little essay
near the end of this page.
If you are able to listen to sound files, I [Bob Cunningham] recommend that you emphasize use of
the sound files to associate each symbol with a sound. Don't be
concerned about whether or not the example words are pronounced as you would
pronounce them. An example word has the sole purpose of illustrating
the sound associated with a symbol, so all that matters is that the speaker is
pronouncing the word with the correct sound of the symbol. I'd
like to call particular attention to the section that is headed Focus on vowel sounds. The sounds presented in that section should be the most
reliable and authoritative guide for associating sounds with symbols. (BC)
The consonant symbols [b], [d], [f], [h], [k], [l], [m], [n], [p],
[r], [s], [t], [v], [w], and [z] have their usual English values.
In other words, they always have the same sound in English spelling,
and that's the sound they have in ASCII IPA, too.
The following table lists the other sounds most often used in ASCII IPA.
It shows each ASCII IPA symbol,
some words that use that sound, the way that American speakers
typically pronounce those words (don't worry if that's not the way that you pronounce them), and the IPA symbol and name.
Numbered links in the table lead to sound samples, the number identifying the speaker.
The section Focus on Vowel Sounds, further down this page, gives additional information about English language vowel sounds. The links <+> provide quick access to, and return from, the relevant line of that table. (MB)
Note 1: The word pronunciations are not heard in
every part of the United States. They are the ones in my [Bob Cunningham's] idiolect and probably are typical of the pronunciation of most speakers west of the Rocky Mountains. (BC)
Note 2: The reference to 'Chicago pop' first appeared in Mark Israel's AUE FAQ, and I [Bob Cunningham] believe it was copied from there by Markus Laker for inclusion in his
ASCII IPA guide. Some AUE readers have expressed disagreement with the Chicago pronunciation of 'pop' with [a]. I have no opinion on the subject, having no knowledge
of how 'pop' is pronounced in Chicago. I suggest that you use your own knowledge or your own judgement about whom to believe. In any case, example words should not be relied upon in general to
illustrate pronunciation. First priority should be given to listening to the sound files to learn the pronunciation associated with any symbol. Example words are to be regarded
as crutches for the benefit of those who do not have sound cards. (BC)
Note 3: Some U.S. speakers do not distinguish between "Mary", "merry", and "marry" 3. Among those who use the same vowel in 'Mary', 'merry', and 'marry', not all of them have the common vowel /E/ in the three words.
One reader has said that he pronounces all three with /&/. (BC)
Note 4: A short tap of the tongue used by some U.S. speakers in "pedal", "petal". If you distinguish"pedal"  from "petal" , then you do not use this sound.
A diphthong is a glide between two pure vowel sounds
but which is normally considered as a unit.
The vowels in cake, dive, bone are diphthongs.
A triphthong is a glide between three vowels -
again, normally considered as a unit.
The vowels in fire and power are triphthongs.
An affricate is a plosive consonant immediately followed
by a fricative or spirant.
In simple English, it's a consonant that momentarily stops the air flow through your mouth
followed by a second consonant that you pronounce by forcing the air through a small gap.
The two consonants in charge are affricates.
Observant readers will notice that /hw/ doesn't belong in this table at all.
Symbols in the table (click on a blue arrow to return here):
If you read alt.usage.english for long, you'll sometimes see ASCII IPA
written between /slashes/ and you'll sometimes see it between
[square brackets]. Which is right?
This apparently simple question baffled me [Markus Laker] for months.
Here is the understanding that I, as a non-linguist, eventually reached,
along with four useful words that interested amateurs - like me - will find useful.
A phone is a simple vowel or consonant, such as a [p].
A phonetic transcription is concerned with phones -
it attempts to write down the sounds that are actually made,
regardless of what they mean.
A phoneme is a sound that distinguishes one word from another.
A phonemic transcription is concerned with the meanings of sounds.
It is not concerned with differences between sounds unless they affect meaning.
Phonetic transcriptions are enclosed in square brackets.
Phonemic transcriptions are enclosed in slashes.
Here's an example. In English English, cold is pronounced /k@Uld/.
This is true for all English accents,
even those that sound very different from RP (Received Pronunciation
or 'BBC English'). In many English accents, however,
the presence of the [l] changes the [@U] to [oU], and the word
comes out as [koUld].
But it's still correct to write it phonemically as /k@Uld/ because the change from [@U] to [oU]
doesn't affect the meaning.
In fact, all words in the same class - soul, pole, sold --
undergo the same change and we aren't normally even conscious of it.
A second example: phonemic transcriptions - which use slashes - don't
distinguish between the four [t] sounds in tot,
bottle, button, and
Phonetic transcriptions - which use square brackets - do attempt to distinguish.
The scheme shown on this page can't make all these distinctions
(although the [t] in don't know would be replaced by a [?]).
More elaborate distinctions are possible using the full definition of ASCII IPA at
although they aren't often used on alt.usage.english. Evan's definition is also
available in a PDF version for those who have the Acrobat reader. He has
stated "The PDF file is the one that should be treated as authoritative (to the extent
that any of this is)."
Also in diphthongs: "dive" /daIv/ (yes, folks, the sound traditionally called "long i" is actually a diphthong!), "out" /aUt/. Typically, [a] is not distinguished phonemically from [A]; but if you use in "ask" a vowel distinct both from the one in "cat" and the one in "father", then [a] is what it is.
There is no ASCII IPA symbol for the IPA 180-degree-rotated
lowercase 'a', which corresponds to the central vowel that is midway between open-mid
and open. I've added sound files for this vowel because at least one AUE
person has said that he thinks he may use a central open vowel. The rotated
lowercase 'a' is slightly higher than open. It seems reasonable to guess
that the difference between it and a fully open central open might be similar to the
difference between /&/ and /a/, since they are the same difference apart on the openness
scale. Anyway, for what it's worth, there it is. If you want to
use it, I suggest you use one of Evan Kirshenbaum's ad hoc symbols (/$/ or /%/) for it
and define it in your accompanying text. (BC)
The [O] sound requires rounded lips, but lips making a a bigger circle than for [o]. If you do not use the same vowel sound in "caught" as in "court", then you are one of the North American speakers who use [O] only before [r]: you do not round your lips for "all" and "caught", and you should use some other symbol, such as [A] or [a], to transcribe the vowel. (Note 1)
If you are one of the few speakers who distinguish such pairs as "aural" and "oral", "for" and "four", "for" and "fore", "horse" and "hoarse", "or" and "oar", "or" and "ore", then you use [O] for the first and [o] for the second word in each pair; otherwise, you use [O] for both.
U.S. speakers tend not to use [V] in words (such as "hurry") where the following sound is [r]: they would say /'h@ri/.
 And some U.S. speakers, especially in the eastern U.S., substitute [@] for [V] in all contexts. If you do not distinguish "mention" /'mEn S@n/
from "men shun"  /'mEn SVn/, then you should use [@] and not [V] to transcribe your speech.
Many U.S. speakers substitute [@] for [V"], so they would say /f@rn/, /h@rl/ . Many
other U.S. speakers pronounce "fern" with no vowel at all: /fr:n/, /hr:l/. If you are one of the few speakers who distinguish such pairs as "pearl" and "purl" (using a lower, more retracted vowel in "purl"), then you can transcribe "pearl" /p@rl/ and "purl" /pV"rl/.
tongue at its central position between front and back
front part of tongue
tongue at its highest position
'low mid', tongue between middle and low positions
tongue at its lowest position
tongue between open-mid and lower-mid positions
'neutral' (neither rounded nor unrounded)
'semi-back', tongue between lower-mid and low positions
'semi-front', tongue between central and front positions
'semi-high', tongue between upper-mid and high positions
'semi-open', tongue between open-mid and open positions
'upper mid', tongue between middle and high positions
In these abbreviations the term 'open' equals 'low'. If 'close'
had been used, it would equal 'high'. (BC)
Note 1: The remarks concerning the pronunciation of [O] were taken verbatim from Mark Israel's AUE FAQ. Some AUE contributors have expressed the opinion
that the remarks are too sweeping a generalization, and that there are American pronunciations of 'caught' and 'court' that don't follow
the guidelines given by the remarks. (They happen to apply exactly to my [Bob Cunningham's] idiolect.) In any case, if you are able to listen to the auditory
pronunciations, you should ignore such explanatory remarks and should also ignore example words. You should give priority to listening to
the sound files. Example words and explanatory notes are crutches for the benefit of those who don't have sound cards. (BC)
Many thanks to those who've kindly provided sound samples:
who was born in 1965 in South London and moved down to the south coast of England in 1983 (see also Credits).
Bill T <e-mail>,
a Mid-Western speaker from Dallas, Texas, USA.
doctor in Michigan (an upper Mid-Western state), USA.
Cunningham, who was born in 1922, spent his youth in California, Utah, Nevada,
Washington, and the U.S. Merchant Marine, and has lived in Southern California
since 1946 (see also Credits).
The sound samples were copied with permission
of the copyright owners from the compact disk 'Sounds of the IPA', which is
copyright 1995 by Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, University College
London. Permission to use them has been granted under the condition that they
will not be used in any commercial way, and in particular will not be used to
produce any further CD using the sounds. To read about - or buy - the CD or cassette called 'Sounds of the IPA', go to
The sound samples are from the Online
Phonetics course at the University of Lausanne
(http://www.unil.ch/ling/page30184.html), permission to use them
having been obtained from that organization. (BC)
The University of Lausanne Phonetics Course is now at http://www.unil.ch/ling/page30184.html. (MB)
ASCII IPA was developed by a team of alt.usage.english and
sci.lang members led by Evan Kirshenbaum
The material in the Consonants and vowels and Other symbols
tables is taken from the alt.usage.english FAQ
written by Mark Israel.
He and Evan Kirshenbaum made many helpful suggestions and corrections during
the production of this page.
This page is for the most part the work of Markus Laker. In early 1999
Bob Cunningham added the large number of pronunciation examples that are marked 3.
He also added the indexes to individual characters and some linkages to other programs at
his Web site, and made some other minor changes to suit his own taste.
On 2 June 2000 he added the material in the 'Focus on vowel sounds' section.
Let me call attention to the fact that I've tried to leave all of Markus Laker's
comments as he wrote them. My intent has been to flag with initials 'BC'
any comments that I've added. I hope I've found all of them. Any
comments that are not so tagged should be assumed to be by Markus Laker. (BC)
Mike Barnes made a number of changes to the presentation of this page, in May 2002.
You'll have noticed that some of the symbols in the tables above don't have sound samples.
That's because they don't occur in the contributors' dialects.
If your dialect or language uses one of these sounds and you have a multimedia computer, please
send to the webmaster
a recording (see Recording Suggestions) of yourself saying one or more of the words shown.
If you send a sample, please say how you'd like yourself named or described.