English does not contain the most complex sounds we can make with our mouths. While the English language may cover most of the variation in the IPA, it does not carry much variation for each phoneme. But there is definitely variation in the English language you may not have noticed. For example, when we say “power” and put our hands in front of our mouths, a noticeable burst of air from your mouth can be observed. This burst of air is due to the letter p. However, in the word “spiral”, there is no burst of air from the letter p. This is due to the position of the letter in the word. This means that our English language is prone to variation other than our alphabet. So a distinction between the English alphabet and the sounds in the English language can be made. This distinction lets us determine that there are more than 26 sounds in the English language, so English is more represented in the IPA chart than we think.
What exactly is the IPA chart, you may ask. “IPA” stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet. The alphabet was created by speakers of the English language so we can see many English letters in IPA. However, it is very beneficial to know all the letters by heart, so linguistic related field work can be made much easier. In fact, knowing the IPA is a requirement for many phonetic-related research opportunities.
The IPA is organized into several charts, however the two main charts are the consonant and vowel chart. The consonant chart uses the 3 categorizations of consonants to identify consonants. The top row contains the places of articulation. This includes: bilabial, labio-dental, dental, alveolar, post-alveolar, retroflex, palatal, velar, uvular, and glottal. The left-side column contains the manner of articulation. These include: Plosive, Nasal, Trill, Tap, Fricative, Lateral Fricative, Approximant, Lateral Approximant. These positions are explained in a previous blog about consonants — “How many sounds?!”. Another important feature, voicing of consonants, is also represented in the chart. For most manner of articulation-place of articulation intersections, it can be observed that there are two boxes. The left-side box represents a voiceless consonant, while the right-side box represents a voiced consonant. Here is a image of the consonant chart:
The IPA’s vowel chart may seem more complex than the consonant chart, however it is simple once the reason for the shape is understood. The four lines spanning across the height of the chart represent the vowel height. Vowels on the top line are high vowels; vowels on the second line are high-mid vowels; vowels on the third line are low-mid vowels; and vowels on the fourth line are low vowels. The three near-vertical lines represent tongue advancement. Vowels on the left-most vertical (diagonal) line are front vowels; vowels on the middle vertical (diagonal) line are central vowels; vowels on the right-most vertical line are back vowels. The shape of the vowel chart is to represent the location of the tongue on your mouth. For example, when you make the [i] sound, your tongue protrudes to the front, top part of your mouth; when making the [u] sound, your tongue falls to the back, top part of your mouth. Here is the vowel chart.