The History of Phonetic Alphabets

Script, 2002

15 Pages, Grade: A



1. Phonetic Alphabets
1.1. Definition and function of phonetic alphabets
1.1.1. Types of phonetic alphabets
1.1.2. Which criteria should a phonetic alphabet fulfil?
1.2. Limits of phonetic alphabets
1.3. Problems of alphabetic spelling in English: English sounds of words and letters are unsystematically represented by orthography (pronunciation - spelling)
1.3.1. Same spelling, different sound
1.3.2. Same sound, different spelling and different meaning:
1.3.3. One letter represents two sounds
1.3.4. Silent letters
1.3.5. Missing letters
1.4. The English orthography
1.4.1. How are the sounds of a language counted?

2. History of Phonetic Alphabets
2.1. Early Alphabetic Writing and Sound Writing
2.2. The first phonetic alphabets 1617- 19th century
2.3. Middle of the 19th century: The Beginnings of Phonetics
2.3.1. Radio Alphabets
2.3.2. 1867: From Bell’s ‘Visible Speech’ to Henry Sweet’s
‘Revised Visible Speech’
2.3.3. 1877: From Henry Sweet’s ‘Revised Visible Speech’ to his
‘Broad Romic System’ to the IPA
2.4. The foundation of the IPA 1886
2.4.1. The foundation of the IPA
2.4.2. Principles regarding the construction of the International
Phonetic Alphabet and its use
2.4.3. Advantages and Disadvantages of the IPA
2.5. 1950/1962: George Bernard Shaw’s Proposed English Alphabet
2.6. Other modern phonetic alphabets (UNIFON, ) / revised IPA versions
2.6.1. Other spelling reformers after Shaw. Example Malone (UNIFON)
2.6.2. Example for phonetic alphabets for languages without letters:
Chinese (Pinyin, syllables and tones)
2.6.3. Revised IPA Versions
2.6.4. Variants of IPA
2.7. Since when do linguists speak of a ‘phoneme’?

3. Spelling reformers and phonetic alphabets
3.1. SpeIling Pronunciation
3.2. Advantages of a non-synchronisation of spelling and sound

4. Phonetic alphabets in language classes for English

5. Definitions

6. Phonetic Symbols

7. References

1. Phonetic Alphabets

1.1. Definition and function of phonetic alphabets

- Phonetic Alphabet:

a) A set of symbols which can be used to differentiate all the phonetic sound segments in one symbol.
b) To describe speech sounds, one cannot depend on the ways, words are spelled. Conventional spellings represent only partially the pronunciation of words. Therefore, phonetic alphabets are being designed, such as the one by the IPA, in which each phonetic symbol stands for one and only sound.
c) Its function is to record the sounds of all languages for descriptive purposes.
d) The purpose of every designed alphabet was to symbolise the speech sounds of the language most accurately.

- Transcription: transfer from a heard text to a text in the phonetic alphabet

1.1.1. Types of phonetic alphabets:

- Phonetic alphabets can be divided into e few types:

a) Alphabetic systems: Mostly based on Roman or cyrillic letters as sound symbols.
Completed with special characters and diacritics (Example: IPA).
b) Non-alphabetic systems: They don’t use alphabetic letters to prevent from confusion between phonetic symbols and regular orthography.
c) Organic systems: The symbols represent the position of the organs of speech. Difficult for learners, difficult to print.
d) Formula systems: They represent sounds with strings of letters, numbers and symbols. Difficult for learners, easy to print.

- Types of phonetic transcriptions:

a) Simple phonemic transcription: A transcription which is made by using letters of the simplest possible shape (Roman) and in the smallest possible number.
b) Comparative transcription: minimum of letters, exotic letters preferred
c) (Simple) Allophonic transcription: more than a minimum number of letters, most of them Roman
d) Comparative allophonic transcription: more than a minimum of letters, exotic letters preferred
e) Phonemic comparative transcriptions

- Broad transcription: a) Uses ‘only’ the actual phonemes of a language

(phonemic transcription, /…./)

b) One symbol for one phoneme.

- Narrow transcription: a) Tries to include as many distinctive speech sounds of a language as possible (phonetic transcription, [….])

b) One phoneme for one allophone.

- Example: One-sound one-letter is inefficient, because we do not need to represent the [ph] in pit and the [p] in spit by two different letters.

- Alphabetic systems are those in which each symbol typically represents one sound unit. Such systems are primarily phonemic rather than phonetic, as is illustrated by the fact that the p in both pit and spit in the English alphabet system is one rather than two "letters," even though the sounds are phonetically distinct.

- transliteration: transfer from one (foreign) orthography to an other

1.1.2. Which criteria should a phonetic alphabet fulfil?

- Each sound has one symbol, each symbol has one sound.
- No sound of a symbol depends on where it stands in the word.
- A phonetic alphabet must be easy to learn, writable, typeable, printable and easy to read.
- A phonetic alphabet must be usable for as many languages as possible

1.2. limits of phonetic alphabets

- lt is of course impossible to construct any set of symbols that will specify all the minute differences between sounds.
- Even Shaw recognized this limitation when in his will he directed his Trustee

‘to bear in mind that the Proposed British Alphabet does not pretend to be exhaustive as it contains only sixteen vowels whereas by infinitesimal movements of the tongue countless different vowels can be produced all of them in use among speakers of English who utter the same vowels no oftener than they make the same fingerprints.’

- Although some sounds in one language are not in another, the sounds of all the languages of the world together constitute a limited set.
- Even if we could specify all the details of different pronunciations, we would not want to. A basic fact about speech is that no two utterances are ever physically the same.
- Example: a) lf a speaker says "Good moming" on Monday and again on Tuesday, there will be some slight differences in the sounds on the two days.

b) In fact, if the same person says "Good morning" twice in succession on the same day, the two utterances will not be physically identical.

c) lf another speaker says " Good moming, " the physical sounds (that is, the acoustic signal) produced will also differ from those produced by the first speaker; yet all the "Good mornings" are considered to be repetitions of the same utterance.

- This fact about language is interesting. Some differences in the sounds of an utterance are important in trying to comprehend it, and other differences can be ignored.
- Even though we never produce or hear exactly the same utterance twice, speakers know when two utterances are linguistically the same or different.
- Some properties of the sounds are therefore more important linguistically than others.
- A phonetic alphabet should include enough symbols to represent the "crucial" / important differences. (entscheidend)
- At the same time it should not, and cannot, include all noncrucial / unimportant differences, because such differences are infinitely varied. (nicht entscheidend)

1.3. Problems of alphabetic spelling in English: English sounds of words and letters unsystematically represented by orthography (pronunciation - spelling):

- The English orthography nowadays is still a system that represents the pronunciation that was used 500 years ago.
- The spelling was mostly not homogeneous and not phonological.
- The speech changed considerably since Chaucer (1340-1400), but the spelling not so much
- Example: name [nam(e)], [neim]
hous(e) [hu:s], [haus]
- Alphabetic Spelling represents the pronunciation of words.
- The written language has then been undergone a constant evolution and change, but mostly not the orthography.
- Language changes with the time, but orthography doesn’t follow with the same speed. Therefore orthography is a very imperfect means to represent the pronunciation of the language.
- But often, are the sounds of the words in a language rather unsystematically represented by orthography, that is by spelling.
- Many scientists and writers (Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, G.B. Shaw, Charles Dickens) call their spelling systems inconsistent (widersprüchlich, unbeständig, inkonsequent).
- Ambrose Bierce defines orthography as ‘the science of spelling by the eye instead of the ear.’
- Irregularities between graphemes (letters) and phonemes
- Fromkin/Rodman give a reason for a need for a phonetic alphabet simply by having a look at English spelling.

1.3.1. Same spelling, different sound:

A single letter may represent different sounds.

- Example (consonant) : the letter ‘p’ is used to represent

a) the aspirated voiceless stop in ‘pit’
b) the unaspirated voiceless stop in ‘spit’
c) ‘k’ kin/skin


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The History of Phonetic Alphabets
University of Bremen  (Fachbereich 10 / Englisch)
Oral Test
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Definition, function, limits of phonetic alphabets, problems of alphabetic spelling in English, English orthography, history of Phonetic Alphabets, spelling reformers and phonetic alphabets, phonetic alphabets in language classes for English, definitions, phonetic symbols.
History, Phonetic, Alphabets, Oral, Test
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Christian Hansmeyer (Author), 2002, The History of Phonetic Alphabets, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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