Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cuidoient li losengier Linguistics

Cuidoient Phonetic Interpretation
by Katrusha Skomorokh

In my most recent language project, I focused on a song in French called 'Cuidoient li losengier'. The song was written by Guillebert de Berneville in the 13th Century and can be found in The Anthology of Music: Medieval Music, on page 73. The point of this project was to teach myself proper medieval French phonetics.

My fall back for learning any language is to use IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet). It is something my mind can fully understand and using the knowledge from the descriptions of various phonemes, I am able to create the necessary sounds needed to produce the language as it was hopefully produced in the time period of Guillebert de Berneville.

The difficulty with this project, as with any project that comes to language, is that you will always have regional variants and discrepancies. As stated in Singing Early Music, “Conon de Bethune was embarrassed by the mockery by court people (even by the queen) of his regionalized Artois or Picard speech, and he claims in a poem that it is uncourtly to make fun of someone else's pronunciation.” In other words, our most useful guide to pronunciation through the ages is by looking at written text. The earlier the text, the more probable that all letters that are seen were meant to be pronounced. This created the issue (or perhaps the pleasant knowledge) that as the centuries came and went, it was usually the uneducated that would would continue to reflect the evolution of pronunciation. Just as children have a tendency to spell based on the sound instead of the actual proper spelling, uneducated people in the middle ages gave us hints as to the pronunciations while the educated told us the correct spellings.

We can also see a lot of influences of French in Middle English or Middle High German and vice versa. This can also help us to figure out pronunciations as well. Taking everything into consideration with this song, from what education the man who wrote it may have had to the region where he was located and the time period of the piece all helped me begin to learn what could have been the pronunciation of 'Cuidoient li losengier'.

To begin this research, I decided to work backwards. It is much easier to see how things would be pronounced now and start working through the language in that manner. Being completely clueless as to what French even sounds like (it was not my language of choice during my school years), I found I was in need of some help.

The first verse of the song reads as such:

Coidoient li losengier
Por ce se il ont menti
Que je me doie eslongnier
D'amors et de mon ami
E non Dieu, je l'amerai
Et bone amor servirai
Nuit et jor
Sans fere folor
Et g'iere envoisie
Chantant et jolie

I asked for a phonetic interpretation. Here in lies one of the biggest difficulties in language. Studying it is really an activity where you need to actively be listening. Spellings, dialect differences, and personal preference can all create problems for someone trying to work out pronunciations.

This is the phonetic translation that I was given:

kwee-dwah-ehnt lee loh-sehn-zjer
pohr keh she eel ohnt mehn-tee
keh zjuh meh dwah ehs-lwahn-zjehr
dah-mohrs eht deh mohn ah-mee
ah nohn deeoo zjeh lahm-ehr-ay
eht bohn ah-mor sehr-vee-ray
nooeet eht zjohr
sahns feh-reh foh-lohr
eh zjeehr-eh ehn-vwah-zee
shahn-tahnt eht zjoh-lee

In IPA, in my opinion, that would be written like this:

kwidwaɛnt li losɛnʤiɛɹ
pɔɹ keɪ seɪ il oʊnt mɛnti
keɪ ʤʌ mɛ dwa ɛslwaŋʤiɛɹ
damɔɹs ɛt dɛ mɔn ami
ɛ nɔn diʊ ʤɛ lamɛreɪ
ɛt bɔnɛ amɔɹ sɛɹviɛreɪ
nʊit ɛt ʤɔɹ
sans fɛɹɛ foʊlɔɹ
ɛ ʤiɛɹɛ ɛnvwazi
ʃantant ɛt ʤoʊli

This was my experiment of reading it out loud to myself before properly hearing what it sounded like. The biggest flaws in my first dry run is not having the nasalized vowels [ã, ɛ̃, ɔ̃, and æ̃] or the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] which is much different from our voiced alveolar approximant [ɹ]. I sat down and listened to the pronunciation of this verse again as well as taking my French dictionary that has the pronunciations written in IPA, I was able to create a new written idea of how this would be pronounced in modern French. Unfortunately, many words were not in the dictionary as this is a Medieval poem and a lot of changes have happened in language since then, so I had to trust my friend's thoughtful pronunciation.

kwidwaɛ̃t li lɔzɛ̃ʒiʁ
pɔʁ sə sə il mɛ̃ti
kə ʒə mə dwa ɛslwãʒiʁ
damuʁz e də mɔ̃ ami
ø nɔ̃ djø ʒə lamɛʁe
e bɔ̃ɛ amuʁ sɛʁviʁe
nɥi e ʒɔʁ
sã feʁe fɔloʁ
ø ʒiʁe ãvwazi
ʃãtã e ʒɔli

Of course, I then began to wonder what, exactly, the medieval pronunciation of this song would be. An alphabet has two rules when it is created. Those rules are:

1. Each symbol should represent a sound.
2. No spoken sound should be represented by more than one symbol.

In those regards, that means that as language evolves, we get the confusion of multiple letters together creating a new sound, or even letters becoming silent depending on the words. The only way to figure out how this song would have been pronounced would be to start at the beginning of language (as close as we are able to study) and slowly move forward to the time and place where this particular song was created.

As questions began to arise, I began working side by side by side with the modern French dictionary, my text book from the International Phonetic Association, and a wonderful book called Singing Early Music that specifically looks at the changes of language using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Where to start? Well, there are important things to look at. First, I searched for a visual of the actual manuscript, as there is a lot you can learn from looking at the actual piece. I also wanted to do some research on the author of the piece as well as the area he was from and any other little tidbits that would help me to learn more about how things would be pronounced.

I began by scrutinizing the manuscript while looking back and forth with the recent publication in a more modern musical notation. There is so much that can plausibly be lost in translation, so I wanted to make sure that I was able to view the actual source instead of just someone else's interpretation of the source. I am glad I did. There are various things I learned, all were were important, from viewing the manuscript.

-Space was, for some reason, limited, even though the song was laid out where new lines would just start wherever the word would fit. There is an interesting mix of omitting whole words (in the slight chorus-like refrain that is seen in 4 of the 5 verses), omitting letters (also in that chorus-like refrain), and squishing extra letters above the word in question to finish the word. It seems, often, like poor planning.

-The scribing, for that time period, was sloppy without proper kerning or straight lines for the letters.

-The authors signature was in the middle of the page between song lyrics. This could mean that this was a book passed around by various authors, perhaps even a book of the Puy d'Arras (which I will talk about later).

-I find it odd that the repeated section (that only differs, alone, in the second verse) starts, written in the music, as "et siere (it honestly looks like an s, not a g like all the others) envoisie. chantant et jolie." The second verse states "sen sui renvoisie chãtãt." which makes it look familiar to the modern IPA for the song. It then stops there with no symbol to mean 'continue the phrase' or anything. The third says "et giere envoisie." (fixed from the first ending) again ending with no further symbol. The fourth, "et giere." and then the last, "et giere envoisie chantant et jolie." returning us back to the original full phrasing.

-It is impossible, by viewing the manuscript by an amateur like me, to be able to tell rhyme scheme or meter of the piece. But I know that trouveres were very big on rhyme and meter, so the only way I was going to learn more about that was through IPA and looking at the Oxford Anthology printed edition of the song.

It was now time to begin looking at the difference between modern French and Medieval French. The biggest changes, of course, are between the alphabet actually being used to its full extent in Early French (remember the rules for an alphabet?) and certain phonemes either no longer being used or having been simplified by the time we get to modern French.

So, for example, let's look at the early French IPA translation possibility for the song (for, as Conon would say, there are regional varieties and we shouldn't make fun. But according to Singing Early Music, these rules were traditionally used through most of France) next to the Modern. The early French will be on the left, modern on the right.

kɥidɔjãnt li lɔsãnʤjɛr̥            kwidwaɛ̃t li lɔzɛ̃ʒiʁ
pɔr̥ ʦə sə il õnt mãnti            pɔʁ sə sə il ɔ̃ mɛ̃ti
kə ʤə mə dɔjɛslɔjɲjɛr̥             kə ʒə mə dwaslwãʒiʁ
dãmɔr̥s ɛt də mõn ãmi           damuʁz e də mɔ̃ ami
ɛ nõn djɛw ʤə lãmər̥ɛ            ø nɔ̃ djø ʒə lamɛʁe
ɛt bõnãmɔr̥ sɛr̥vir̥ɛ                e bɔ̃amuʁ sɛʁviʁe
nɥit ɛt ʤɔr̥                            nɥi e ʒɔʁ
sãns fɛr̥ɛ fɔlɔr̥                       sã feʁe fɔloʁ
ɛt ʤjɛrãnvɔjsiə                      ø ʒiʁãvwazi
ʧãntãnt ɛt ʤɔliə                  ʃãtãt e ʒɔli

What we are seeing here is that in early French, all letters were pronounced, unlike in modern French. There is also a difference in the [r̥] and the [ʁ]. The first is a voiceless alveolar tap or flap, much like the modern r's in Spanish. The later, a voiced uvular fricative, was not even introduced into French speech until the mid-sixteenth century, and even then it wasn't accepted into cultured speech (poetry, music, etc) until the end of the seventeenth century (Singing Early Music, pg 73). Most of the sounds are seen in both the early and modern French, though. It is in the vowels that the most changes happen through time.

But was this an early French song, teetering in the 13th century when a lot of changes happen in language? It is now time to answer some further questions. Early French is stated to go from 1100-1250, while middle French is stated to go from 1250-1450, so being in the century that sees a lot of change (which, of course, didn't happen in a year, but we can at least lean towards one graduation or the other based on spellings, life of the author, and where/what was going on at that time/place), it was time to broaden my research to more than just the linguistics of a single song.

As is stated in the book Singing Early Music, “...all were increasingly dominated from the end of the twelfth century by Francien, the language used by the royal court...” This helps us in being able to believe that troubadours of France who were seen in courts would, most likely, according to this and the words of Conon, be speaking the same dialect as the courts spoke. So although there is a possibility of dialect differences, we can feel fairly certain that this will not be a huge discrepancy for our troubadour in question.

Gillebert de Berneville is stated to have flourished between 1250-1280. He was a French trouvere that, in his time, was appreciated and popular. Despite this, his songs are only seen in a handful of chansonniers. Gillebert had contact with the a lot of prominent men around the area of Arras, close to his home of Berneville. He worked with many poets in the region and even competed (and had one poem crowned) in the Puy d'Arras.

The Puy d'Arras was a medieval poetical society in Arras that held competitions between trouveres in courtly love lyrics. The president, annually elected, presided over the competitions. Its favored style of poetry was the jeu parti, composed when one troubadour would present a questions and take it up in debate with another, each taking different sides.

The region of Arras was a huge culture center in France, especially for trouveres. Between the culture, the society of Puy d'Arras, and the important figures seen in Gillebert's life, he was certainly educated well enough that he would most likely be in the trending of where language was at that time, leaving us with the decision to use middle French. In fact, as in 1180 Arras became an important location for banking and trade, wool being of great importance since the 4th century, the entire area would be following language trends, for certain.

But the manuscript was not helping me learn a date. Gillebert flourished for 30 years, but that doesn't even mean that this was written during his years of flourishing The Oxford Anthology, though, has a bibliography under the musical bars. It says:

R 1287; Paris; Biblioteque de l'Arsenal, MS 5198, p. 145.

Whether this means the song was written in 1287 or the book was finished in 1287, I do not know. But we can work on the middle French and then view the differences between the two and use that to determine which we should be using. Once again, we will look at early French on the left and middle French on the right.

kɥidɔjãnt li lɔsãnʤjɛr̥             kɥidwɛãn li lɔzãnʒjɛr̥
pɔr̥ ʦə sə il õnt mãnti             pɔ sə sə i õn mãnti
kə ʤə mə dɔjɛslɔjɲjɛr̥              kə ʒə mə dwɛlwɛɲjɛr̥
dãmɔr̥s ɛt də mõn ãmi           dãmɔr̥ ɛ də mõ ãmi
ɛ nõn djɛw ʤə lãmər̥ɛ             ɛ nõ djø ʒə lãmər̥ɛ
ɛt bõnãmɔr̥ sɛr̥vir̥ɛ                  ɛ bõnãmɔr̥ sɛr̥vir̥ɛ
nɥit ɛt ʤɔr̥                             nɥi ɛ ʒɔr̥
sãns fɛr̥ɛ fɔlɔr̥                         sãn fɛr̥ɛ fɔlɔr̥
ɛt ʤjɛrãnvɔjsiə                        ɛ ʒjɛrãnvwɛsiə
ʧãntãnt ɛt ʤɔliə                    ʃãntãn ɛ ʤɔliə

So, how do we decide which is more likely? I go back to the original manuscript. That one small discrepancy that I spoke of where letters/words were omitted. The second verse states "sen sui renvoisie chãtãt”. It is obviously a quick handed manner of making sure people can still read the word. It could be that the symbols that look like ~'s above the a's could be tiny n's. But the one thing they are not able to get rid of are the t's. Perhaps because, in that time period, not all the t's would be pronounced which means, if you didn't write them, people would think it was a different word. Look at the English word 'sign'. If someone left out the 'g' because you can't hear it in there (as an uneducated person may), we have the word 'sin'. Completely different words with completely different meanings. This makes me lean towards the middle English for phonetic transcription.

Also, it is said in Singing Early Music that in early French, any time two vowels were next to each other, they were each pronounced separately. Many were starting to blend in middle French. Because of this, the only way for the song to have a measured meter is if it were in middle French.

I also took the opportunity to view other trouvere songs of the time period, both the examples in the book as well as a book of women troubadours of France. They also had similar spellings for words that earlier (and, of course, later period) did not concur with. This confirmed two things for me. One, that Gillebert was educated. And two, that Arras was strongly influenced, because of its culture and activity, by the changing languages making them well seated in middle French at that time.

Most of the changes were in silencing of letters or in the vowels. There wasn't much change in the actual consonants. There were certainly rules seen for middle French as far as how to pronounce words. Here is a quick notation on them, taken from the easily more explained versions in Singing Early Music:

-spellings do not reflect pronunciation
-simplified affricatives: [s], [ʃ], [ʒ]
-silent [s] seen before consonants and in final position
-loss of many final consonants
-c before an a, o, or u is pronounced [k]; before an e or i is pronounced [s]
-ch is pronounced [ʃ]
-g before an a, o, or u is pronounced [ɡ]; before an e or i is pronounced [ʒ]
-j is pronounced [ʒ]
-l at the beginning of a word or syllable is pronounced [l]; if followed by a consonant, even if in the next word, is pronounced [w]; if il or ill, pronounced [ʎ]
-n and m both are still pronounced after their nasalized vowels
-[ɲ] is pronounced much like the Spanish ñ and usually spelled gn or ign
-q or qu is pronounced [k]
-r is pronounced [r̥] much like in modern Spanish or Italian
-rr is pronounced as [r̥] with a single tap only in speech, having not been accepted in song as such until mid 17th C.
-all final consonants disappeared in popular language, but in literary (song and poetry), the situation was complex. Inside a line of verse, s was only pronounced if the following word began with a vowel and it was voiced: [z]. At a pause or end of the line a final s was fully pronounced [s]. Inside a word s was always silent even though it remained in spellings until 18th C. Before disappearing, s was pronounced in an aspirated form [x] before transforming into a lengthening of vowel form. (To me, I am hearing... s is forever and always silent when followed by a consonant unless it ended a word or began a word. It certainly confuses me quite a bit, that's for certain.)
-x was used commonly for -us which was usually pronounced as [ws]
-z is pronounced [s]

There are also many rules for the vowels because, as I mentioned, they were starting to muddle and flow together at that point. I recommend picking up the book to learn more in that aspect as it is much too much to describe here.

It wasn't until after I had finished all the IPA for the song that I learned two incredibly important things that will help in learning the music and singing the piece.

-The rhyme scheme is a/b/a/b/c/c/d/d/e/e

-The meter scheme is 7/7/7/7/7/7/3/5/6/6

With that new knowledge, I was able to use IPA to finish the rest of the song.

(Please click on pictures to make them larger.)

Here I have rewritten the manuscript in IPA and it wasn't until I placed the musical notes on the staff did the music finally make sense to me. It is because in IPA I am able to see and know where the syllable breaks are that, looking at the actual language, I have no idea. For example, I always know the fourth syllable gets a three trilled note on one of the lines while all the other syllables in that line only get a single note. It does not mean that they are all whole notes or half notes. Just that each syllable is a mono - tone instead of a poly - tone. Being able to visualize all the breaks in the words is very helpful as I have, many times, tried to sing songs before where you can never figure out where syllables are to be placed according to the notes or even how many syllables a word has to be able to place them to the notes.

Here is the consonant chart along with the diagram of sound creation within the head. This chart shows all the consonant sounds that will be seen and used in Middle French. Of course, we can't say for certain that this is true without a doubt as we do now know that people made fun of accents of those in the same country. You will notice that all the consonants stay within the mouth, especially closer to the front. The closer we get towards modern French, the more we see a lot of the sounds moving uvular, more towards the back of the throat.

Here on the vowel chart, we can see the triangle formed by the various vowels in the mouth. The diagram at the top shows us the frontal closed sound of [i] which is pronounced like the sound in 'bee'. In the upper back of the mouth, still closed, we have the sound [u] like in the word 'too'. Our palate then rises as out tongue drops, mouth opening, and we find ourself with the more open [a] sound pronounced like 'baa'. All the vowels we will find, with the exception of those that have the [~] mark which makes them nasalized, all our vowels are going to be voiced within this small triangle formed in the mouth. Where you see the [e] next to the [y] sound, the only difference is that when we say [e], our lips are usually spread wide. If we round our lips into a more circular shape, we produce the sound [y]. You may not hear it right away, but that is because we are not always able to hear or pronounce phonemes that we do not use growing up: they leave our vocabulary, so to speak. Typically when two symbols are beside each other, though, you can experiment with the sound that on the left is more open and wide, and on the right is more rounded and tight.

When we look at modern French, we find more of our vowels becoming nasalized and pushing more towards the back of the throat, forcing the triangle seen here to change shape and location in the mouth.

With all this knowledge one can more confidently be able to pronounce words as they may have been pronounced in the past, being able to create the music with more of a period feel than we often can with our more modern learning.

I know that my research here really forces people to have a deeper knowledge of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) than many possibly may already have, so I would like to refer people to my starter course on IPA that I created, trying to keep the information in layman's terms in hopes that reading that will help teach someone enough that they can begin to understand more of what I am doing with my language research. Please view that handout here.


McGee, Timothy J., A. G. Rigg and David N. Klausner, eds. Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

Berneville, Guillebert de. “Cuidoient li losengier.” The Oxford Anthology of Music: Medieval Music. Ed. W Thomas Marrocco and Nicholas Sandon. Oxford: University Press. 1977. 73.

Handbook of International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: University Press. 1999. 78-81.

Bogin, Meg. The Women Troubadours. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1976.

Barron's French – English Dictionary. United States: Barron's Educational Series, Inc. 2006.

Theodore Karp. "Gillebert de Berneville" Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed 8 January 2013.

Puy d'Arras accessed 14 February, 2014.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

IPA as a Tool for the SCA class handout

IPA as a Tool in the SCA
Taught by Katrusha Skomorokh
What is IPA?
About 1,300 years ago, our alphabet we use today was first used. There are certain rules for creating an alphabet:

1. Each symbol should represent a sound.

2. No spoken sound should be represented by more than one symbol.

1,300 years ago, that was all well and fine. Now a days, it is any wonder we are able to read at all with our scrambling of letters being able to create nearly any sound depending on the order they are placed in.

IPA was created about 100 years ago. IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. What does this mean?

International: this can be applied to any language.

Phonetic: it is based on the sounds created from speech.

Alphabet: it follows the rules for an alphabet.

IPA can be used as a tool to create a generally agreed upon set of symbols to transcribe sounds unambiguously.

There are a few very important things to remember about IPA, though.

-IPA can not, alone, teach you a language. It will help you with pronunciations, but it will not teach you what words mean or proper grammar for a language.

-Using IPA you can record not just regional variations in pronunciations (the difference in how 'car' is pronounced in Boston versus New York), but you can also record accents (for example, the accent of an Irishman speaking traditional American English).

-Yes, once you transcribe something, anyone can look at that transcription and pronounce it as you wrote it without argument. BUT just because you record it doesn't mean it has been recorded correctly. There are sounds that you may not hear, or just translate into the closest similar letter. Consider some people who have English as a second language. It is difficult, for example, for those who live in Japan to differentiate between our sounds of /l/ and /r/. The best way to know if you are recording a sound correctly is to know where the speaker is from, what language they are speaking to you, and to be able to look at those charts and notice the differences between what you are used to (most likely American English) and their language.

The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association tells us there are certain assumptions of speech behind the notations of IPA that are also important to remember:

-Some aspects of speech are linguistically relevant, whilst others (such as personal voice quality) are not.

-Speech can be represented partly as a sequence of discrete sounds or 'segments'.

-Segments can usefully be divided into two major categories, consonants and vowels.

-The phonetic description of consonants and vowels can be made with reference to how they are produced and to their auditory characteristics.

-In addition to the segments, a number of 'suprasegmental' aspects of speech, such as stress and tone, need to be represented independently of the segments.”

What can IPA do for me in the SCA?

IPA can create a sense of consistency through-out the SCA. Having everyone on the same page when it comes to pronunciations without having to return to the source (asking the person how to say their name again) or arguing over someone's phonetic interpretation of a word.

We are a society that is all over the world. People have accents. People choose various regions in which their persona is from, as well as different time periods. All of these things factor into pronunciations of names. How many times have you had someone write out a name phonetically for you and you still manage to mispronounce it according to the owner? It happens. Just as it happens that 15 people with the same set of sheet music will not all pronounce the words the same.

All of this is because we are trying to use letters that have such varied meanings as far as sounds are concerned.

Take, for example, a moment from my life. I wanted to learn to sing a song in French, but I have never taken a day of French in my life. The first line of the song is written like this in the manuscript:

Cuidoient li losengier

I asked a friend if he would be able to write out, phonetically, how that was pronounced. He gave me this:

Kwee-dwah-ehnt lee loh-sehn-zjer

So, I said that outloud to myself so I could transcribe it into IPA as I am much more comfortable with it:

kwidwaɛnt li losɛnʤiɛr

We then sat down together and he pronounced it directly for me:

kwidwaɛ̃t li lɔzɛ̃ʒiʁ

Do you notice the difference? You may not understand it, but visually you can see that different symbols were used depicting a correction in how the sounds were formed. As I knew nothing about the sound differences in French, and it wasn't something our letter symbols would be able to dictate to me without me already specifically knowing what a French accent sounded like, it was nearly impossible for me to have come up with the proper sounds from that phonetic transcription. It doesn't mean the transcription was wrong, merely that I was unable to correctly get into the speakers mind.

This is something that happens all the time as we assume everyone would use the same phonetic translations as we would for a word or sentence. I did an experiment where I asked friends from around the world to phonetically write out their pronunciation of the sentence: I have been to see my loving father. I was given everything from “eye hahv bin tu c mai luv-ing fah-thur” to “i hav ben 2 c mi lurv-in far-thar.” Just looking at the last one, I end up pronouncing it several different ways because I keep arguing with myself as to how each section is pronounced by what is written. But, when I write it in IPA: aj hæv bɪn tu si maj ləvɪŋ fɑðər , there is no question of how that is pronounced.

By the end of this class, you will be able to look back at both of these examples and confidently be able to sort them out.

The Anatomy of a Phoneme: Consonants

To understand how consonants are made, we first need to be able to look at a diagram of the articulators.

Bilabial – both lips

Labio-dental – lip and teeth

Lingua-dental – tongue and teeth

Lingua-alveolar – tongue and gum ridge

Lingua-post alveolar – tongue and the space behind the gum ridge, before the palate

Lingua-palatal – tongue and hard palate

Lingua-velar – tongue and soft palate

Glottal – the space between the vocal cords

Take some time to run your tongue around your mouth and identify all the areas. As you begin to learn IPA you will feel silly now and then as you slowly form words so that you can pay strict attention to what your articulators are doing. When you explore new sounds (take your tongue tip and place it on your upper lip. Pronounce the /t/ sound. Feels odd, but it is a separate sound) you will find yourself experimenting a lot. So get to know your articulators. Not all of them are listed here. I will not be touching on retroflexive (tongue curled and against the palate), uvular (tongue and uvula), or pharyngeal (tongue and pharynx). I am focusing on the typical sounds you will hear in American English.

We now can see where all the consonants take shape within our head, but how are they created?

Plosive – blocking a stream of breathe completely for a short time.

Nasal – Letting air out of the nostrils while the soft palate remains low and the oral cavity is blocked by lips or tongue.

Fricative – Squeezing air through narrow openings.

Glides or approximants – moving the articulators from one position to another

Lateral – dropping sides of tongue for the release of air

Affricatives – consonant combinations

With this knowledge, you can figure out almost everything. But there is one thing missing: the sound. Typically there is a voiced and an unvoiced version of each sound. So if you have a bilabial plosive, depending on if you are voicing or not, you will either come up with the [p] sound or the [b] sound. On IPA charts you will notice that many of the blocks of the chart have two symbols. Typically, the voiced consonant is on the right and the unvoiced is on the left.

Anatomy of a Phoneme: Vowels

The only distinction when it comes to vowels is really the place of articulation. Your tongue can be high, mid, low, or anywhere in between (or think of it as how open your mouth is) just as the place of production can be in the front (think lips), middle, or back (think glottal) and everywhere in between. It sounds frustrating, but when you look at a vowel chart, it is a little easier to understand.

In American English, the chart is fairly simple. Your more closed frontal sound [i] is like the /ee/ sound in bee. The [a] in the open and back is the more /ahh/ sound like in the word honest. You can feel the difference between the two fairly rapidly.
There are, also, vowel diphthongs that we use. These have their own chart so you can see the slide of where they begin and where they end.

IPA in practice

All of this is very confusing at first. The letters all look so familiar and yet so different all at the same time. So let's go through and create an example for each symbol so you can begin to see each symbol as a different sound.

In IPA, when you write a symbol of the phonetic alphabet, you keep that sound symbol in brackets. This designates that you are using IPA instead of some other phonetic alphabet.

Bilabial plosive voiced: [b] as in boat

Bilabial plosive unvoiced: [p] as in puppy

Lingua-alveolar plosive voiced: [d] as in dream

Lingua-alveolar plosive unvoiced: [t] as in took

Lingua-velar plosive voiced: [g] as in garden

Lingua-velar plosive unvoiced: [k] as in cat

Labio-dental fricative voiced: [v] as in very

Labio-dental fricative unvoiced: [f] as in furry

Lingua-dental fricative voiced: [ð] as in they

Lingua-dental fricative unvoiced [θ] as in three

Lingua-alveolar fricative voiced: [z] as in zoo

Lingua-alveolar fricative unvoiced: [s] as in snake

Lingua-palatal fricative voiced: [ʒ] as in beige

Lingua-palatal fricative unvoiced: [ʃ] as in shop

Glottal fricative unvoiced: [h] as in hot

Bilabial nasal voiced: [m] as in manuscript

Lingua-alveolar nasal voiced: [n] as in next

Lingua-velar nasal voiced: [ŋ] as in sing

Bilabial glide voiced: [w] as in wet

Bilabial glide unvoiced: [ʍ] as in where

Lingua-alveolar glide voiced: [r] as in red

Lingua-palatal glide voiced: [j] as in yes

Lingua-alveolar lateral voiced: [l] as in left

Affricative voiced: [ʤ] as in judge

Affricative unvoiced: [ʧ] as in chair

High front tense: [i] as in eat

High front lax: [ɪ] as in rich

Mid front tense: [e] as in break

Mid front tense diphthong: [eɪ] as in eight

Mid front lax: [ɛ] as in friend

Low front tense: [æ] as in laugh

High back tense: [u] as in too

High back lax: [ʊ] as in wooden

Mid back tense: [o] as in rope

Mid back tense diphthong: [oʊ] as in code

Mid back lax:: [ɔ] as in awful

Low back to high front diphthong: [ɔɪ] as in coin

Low back lax: [ɑ] as in calm

Low back lax diphthong: [ɑɪ] as in time

Low back lax diphthong: [ɑʊ] as in house

Low central stressed: [ʌ] as in double

Low central unstressed: [ə] as in bananas

Mid central stressed: [ɝ] as in herd

Mid central unstressed: [ɚ] as in father

There are other diphthongs that you find you will use such as [ɛɚ] as in bear. Once you know the vowels you will be able to feel the glide into the [ɚ] as a vowel as opposed to the [r] as a consonant and be able to tell the difference. As far as the other diphthongs are concerned, typically when the vowel is followed by a voiced consonant, we typically use the diphthong. But the meaning of the word does not change if you use the vowel instead of the diphthong or vice versa. It merely becomes a regional variant.

Let's now work on some practice phrases and poems that are fairly well known in American English to help you get more of a feel for IPA.

IPA Practice:

IPA is something that is very difficult to learn without listening to and transcribing things yourself, but to at least give you an idea, let's start with some words, phrases, and simple poetry to give you an idea.



[ist kɪŋdəm]




[ɑɪ lʌv beɪkən]

[lɜt ðɛm it keɪk]

[mæri hæd ʌ lɪtl læm

ɪts flis wʌz wɑɪt æz snoʊ

ænd ɛvriwɛɚ ðæt mæri wɛnt

ðʌ læm wʌz ʃɚ tʌ ɡoʊ]

Continue to practice IPA by trying to transcribe the way people speak. Do it while sitting in court or having someone talk slowly for you, if you need. When you start feeling comfortable with American English, there is a large amount of information out there on period pronunciations in various languages. Once you understand and can read the language used for creating sounds, you can explore and experiment with a variety of other sounds used in other languages.

There is a lot of information to be found out there. Wikipedia has a plethora of good information in IPA for various different languages. The next few pages are going to show you some of the information you can find on Wikipedia:

Old Norse:
Old Norse had nasalized versions of all nine vowel places. These occurred as allophones of the vowels before nasal consonants and in places where a nasal had followed it in an older form of the word, before it was absorbed into a neighboring sound. If the nasal was absorbed by a stressed vowel, it would also lengthen the vowel. These nasalizations also occurred in the other Germanic languages, but were not retained long.
Generic Vowel System c. 9th-12th centuries
  Front vowels Back vowels
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
High i • ĩ iː • ĩː y • ỹ yː • ỹː     u • ũ uː • ũː
Mid e • ẽ eː • ẽː ø • ø̃ øː • ø̃ː     o • õ oː • õː
Low/Low-Mid ɛ • ɛ̃ ɛː • ɛ̃ː œ • œ̃   a • ã aː • ãː ɔ • ɔ̃ ɔː • ɔ̃ː
Note: The low/low-mid vowels may be indicated differently:
  • /æ/ = /ɛ/
  • /ɒ/ = /ɔ/
  • /ɑ/ = /a/
Old Norse has six plosive phonemes.
  Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Labiovelar Glottal
p b t d k ɡ
m n (ŋ)
f (v) θ) s (ɣ) h
ʀ j w
Lateral approximant

Latin Alphabet IPA Examples English approximation
Cl. Ecc.
scar; change
car; scar
gear; giant
song number; onion
her; hour
pan; fan
trilled or tapped r
scarp; sharp
stone; Botswana
tone; stone
west; vest
zest; adze

Latin Alphabet IPA Examples English approximation
Cl. Ecc.
bra (but shorter)
father; bra
kin; keen
put; food
pure; keen
cute; keen
ae, æ
sigh; sed
oe, œ
boy; e in neighbor
an, vm, etc.
ã, ʊ̃, etc.
an, um, etc.
(as written)
nasal vowels
Other symbols used for Latin
IPA Examples
Stress (placed before the stressed syllable)
Syllable marker, generally used between vowels in hiatus
Indicates a long vowel or germinated consonant.

Old French:
Bilabial Labi-
Dental/alveolar Postalveolar/palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal      m      n      ɲ
Plosive p   b t   d k   ɡ
Fricative f   v s     z (h)
Affricate ts   dz  
Lateral      l      ʎ
Trill r
  • The affricates /ts/, /dz/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/ became fricatives ([s], [z], [ʃ], [ʒ]) in Middle French. /ts/ was written as c, ç, -z, as in cent, chançon, priz ("a hundred, song, price"). /dz/ was written as -z-, as in doze "twelve".
  • /ʎ/ (l mouillé), as in conseil, travaillier ("advice, to work"), became /j/ in Modern French.
  • /ɲ/ appeared not only in the middle of a word, but also at the end, as in poing "hand". At the end of a word, /ɲ/ was later lost, leaving a nasalized vowel.
  • /h/ was found only in Germanic loanwords and was later lost. In native Latin words, /h/ was lost early on, as in om, uem, from Latin homō.
  • Intervocalic /d/ from both Latin /t/ and /d/ was lenited to [ð] in the early period (cf. contemporary Spanish: amado [aˈmaðo]). At the end of words it was also devoiced to [θ]. In some texts it was sometimes written as dh or th (aiudha, cadhuna, Ludher, vithe). By 1100 it disappeared altogether.

In Old French, the nasal vowels were not separate phonemes, but occurred as allophones of the oral vowels before a nasal stop. This nasal stop was fully pronounced; thus bon was pronounced [bõn] (Modern French [bɔ̃]). Nasal vowels were present even in open syllables before nasals, where Modern French has oral vowels, as in bone [bõnə] (Modern French bonne [bɔn]).


Old French vowels

  Front Central Back
Close Oral i   y   u
Nasal ĩ   ỹ  
Close-mid Oral e ə  
nasal õ
Open-mid ɛ   ɔ
Open Oral a    
Nasal ã
  • /o/ had formerly existed, but closed to /u/; it would later appear again when /aw/ monophthongized, and also when /ɔ/ closed in certain positions (e.g. when followed by original /s/ or /z/, but not by /ts/, which later became /s/).

Diphthongs and triphthongs

Late Old French diphthongs and triphthongs
  IPA Example Meaning
Oral /aw/ chevaus horse
/oj/ toit roof
/ow/ coup blow
/ew/ ~ /øw/ neveu nephew
Nasal /ẽj/ plein full
/õj/ loing far
Oral /je/ pié foot
/ɥi/ fruit fruit
/we/ ~ /wø/ cuer heart
Nasal /jẽ/ bien well
/ɥĩ/ juignet July
/wẽ/ cuens count (nom. sg.)
stress always falls on middle vowel
Oral /e̯aw/ beaus beautiful
/jew/ dieu god
/wew/ jueu Jew

Middle English:

Here is another important chart to have:



When it comes to IPA, there are many good resources to keep on hand. When learning a language, it is always good to keep around a dictionary. Both Barron's and Longman are known to be IPA dictionaries, AKA the pronunciation guide is written strictly in IPA. Make sure to open the dictionary and make sure you recognize the symbols as being unique IPA symbols for the sounds being used. You will get confused it you try to look at a different style of phonetics.

Speaking Clearly: Improving Voice and Diction by Jeffery C. Hahner, Martin A. Sokoloff, and Sandra L. Salisch

This book is written in the sense of English as a second language, focusing on teaching IPA. If you are finding IPA to be overwhelmingly confusing, this is a great book to start with as it is very simplistic and clear in its teaching techniques. It should come with a cd as well that will help you drill sounds to connect them to different symbols.

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet by the International Phonetic Association

This book is much more academic, but it does give charts and examples of texts for about 30 different languages and helps you with placement and creation of phonemes. A great book for being able to get to know all the sounds that have symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance edited by Timothy J. McGee with A. G. Rigg and David N. Klausner

This book is the academic book for learning the changes of pronunciations through the years and it is done fully with the help of IPA for standardization. For those wanting to learn proper pronunciations for music or names for various regions, no matter how others pronounce it, look into this book for the rules and clauses for how to work the various sounds and how they changed through the centuries.
This is, of course, a very small selection of books that can and will be of use to you. These are merely the ones I like to use a lot. If you find other books that are particularly useful to you, I would love to hear about them. Please consider emailing me the title and author so I can look at them as well!