Phonetics and IPA

A quick guide to the sounds of speech

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is like sheet music for language. It’s an alphabet with exactly one letter for every sound in every language. It’s a precise, unambiguous, universal standard to represent phonetic speech, and easier to learn than it seems.

IPA is empowering for various language and speech-related subjects. Actors use it to master different accents, animators use it to match mouth animations to speech, speech pathologists use it to describe speech disorders, and it can even help with poetry and puns to understand why words sound similar.

The first section teaches you a working knowledge of IPA. The rest goes into more depth; it’s optional, but highly recommended as it will help you understand and memorize IPA better.


1. International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
2. Consonants
Places of articulation
Types of articulation
3. Vowels
Height, backness, roundedness
4. Syllables
Onset, nucleus, coda

Use for neography

Knowing IPA isn’t strictly necessary for creating or using scripts. At least, it shouldn’t stop you if you find it difficult or tedious. But understanding it is very advantageous for neography. It helps makes cryptographic scripts harder to decipher, fictional scripts more realistic, and practical scripts more phonetically accurate.

1. International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an indispensable tool for linguistic academics, professionals, and hobbyists alike. Learning IPA is the key to learning countless other scripts, literally: charts that show the IPA equivalent of each character in a script are often called ‘keys’.

IPA is a universal standard alphabet. It has exactly one symbol for every sound in every language, so there is never ambiguity about which sound a symbol represents. It’s so precise that it’s not only used by linguists and people learning new languages, but also by actors seeking to master different accents.

Here are the consonants of IPA:

And here are the vowels:

Don’t worry! This looks complicated because it includes every sound from every known language. Right now, we only need to learn the ones used in English, which are shown in this simplified table:

Now that’s much more approachable! We’ll learn these consonants first and get back to the vowels later.

As we introduce these symbols one-by-one, you can go along with this interactive IPA chart to help hear them. Don’t feel pressured to memorize everything right away; you can come back to review anytime.

About notation: Characters wrapped in /slashes/ refer strictly to their phonetic value in IPA and those in ⟨angle brackets⟩ refer to the letterform as a graphical unit independent of whatever sound it might represent. For example: in English, the letter ⟨a⟩ can make the sounds /æ/, /ʌ/, /α/, /εi/ and so on.


1.1 Consonants

Good news: you already know 15 letters of IPA! These letters make sounds that are completely intuitive and unambiguous to English speakers: /p, b, t, d, k, g, m, n, f, v, s, z, h, l, w/. The only thing to note is that /s/ always sounds like a hiss and not a buzz; unlike the ⟨s⟩ in beds or bags which is pronounced as a /z/.

Other IPA consonants make sounds that are not immediately intuitive to English speakers, so we’ll look at them one-by-one with example words:






  • The letter ⟨j⟩ is used very differently across languages. In IPA, it makes the ⟨y⟩ sound in English, which is the sound that ⟨j⟩ makes in most other Germanic languages.
  • The letter ⟨ɹ⟩ makes the ⟨r⟩ sound in English. In IPA, the rightside-up version is reserved for a different sound, so turn your r’s upside-down.
  • The letter ⟨ŋ⟩ makes the ⟨ng⟩ in English. Usually an ⟨n⟩ before a ⟨k⟩ also makes this sound, and sometimes the g is not pronounced like in singer /sɪŋʊɹ/ but other times it is like in finger /fɪŋgʊɹ/.
  • The letter ⟨ʃ⟩ makes the ⟨sh⟩ sound in English. Sometimes it appears in strange places, like in special /spεʃʌl/ or partial /pαɹʃʌl/.
  • The letter ⟨ʒ⟩ makes an exotic sound that is sometimes used in English.




  • The ⟨th⟩ letter combination in English actually represents two different sounds: /θ/ is unvoiced and /ð/ is voiced. Consonant voicing is explained later on this page, for now you can just repeat the examples until you get a feel for the difference.
  • In English, we think of ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨j⟩ as individual sounds, but they’re actually two consonants merged together and indicated in IPA with a curve above.


1.2 Vowels

The goal of this guide is to teach IPA as easily as possible, but vowels are unavoidably tricky because their differences are subtle and pronunciation varies among different accents of English. By design, IPA is so precise that it reflects what makes these accents sound different. To make things more complicated, the way that words are pronounced when individually enunciated is often not how they’re pronounced in natural continuous speech.

Don’t be intimidated: If your goal is to make a script, you can define different vowels as they sound distinct to you. There’s no right and wrong. Learning proper IPA is helpful, but it doesn’t need to be an obstacle.

You’ll have to be a bit more self-reliant to figure out which vowels are right for your accent, but these tools will make it easier:

  • Check how words are spelled in IPA in dictionaries like Wiktionary, but check that it’s accurate for your accent.
  • Listen to how words are pronounced in different accents on Forvo.
  • Videos lessons on YouTube can also be an easy way to learn.

The following versions of the vowel chart show only the IPA vowels used in General American, Received Pronunciation (British), and General Australian accents:




The tables below show the IPA vowels for lexical sets: archetypical words that cover all the different vowel sounds in an accent. Some words share vowel sounds in one accent but are different in other accents. The colon-like symbol (ː) indicates a long vowel that is spoken for a slightly longer time.

USiuææɑɑɔ, ɑɔ, ɑ
USıεʌʊəɜɔɔ, oʊ

Below are diphthong vowels, which are distinct sounds formed by two single vowels spoken together in a continuous glide:


Memorizing requires practice, soʊ trαi ɪt foʊɹ joʊɹsεlf.

Flash cards are a very easy and effective way to memorize them all, and there are many websites and mobile apps you can use such as Memrise, Anki, and others.

2. Consonants

Consonants are much simpler than they seem. All the consonants on the chart, even the ones for other languages, are produced from three simple factors:

  1. Place of articulation
  2. Type of articulation
  3. Voicing

All consonants are named by these three factors. For example, ⟨ð⟩ is a fricative type of articulation that is produced at the dental place of articulation and it has voicing, so it’s called the voiced dental fricative.


2.1 Place of Articulation

This refers to the speech organ responsible for producing the sound, such as the tongue, lips, teeth, alveolar ridge (behind the upper front teeth), palate, and more. You might encounter these grouped up into broader categories like labial, coronal, dorsal, and laryngeal.

Try making these sounds and feeling where they’re produced.

This chart omits retroflex (between post-alveolar and palatal), uvular (dark grey), and pharyngeal places of articulation because no English consonants are articulated there.


2.2 Type of Articulation

The type of airflow or vibration that produces the sound.

  • Plosives
    Also known as stops, an articulation that transiently blocks airflow. English has seven plosives: /p, b, t, d, k, g, ʔ/. The glottal stop /ʔ/ is rare but occurs in some words like uh‑oh /ʔʌʔoʊ/.
  • Trill
    Trills involve physical vibration of the speech organ. This is found in the Spanish r-sound but English has no trills.
  • Tap
    Also known as flaps, a momentary closure of the oral cavity. In North American and Australian English, the letters ⟨t, d⟩ are sometimes pronounced as a tap /ɾ/.
  • Nasals
    Consonants where airflow is completely blocked in the mouth and exits through the nasal passage instead. English has three nasals: /m, n, ŋ/.
  • Fricatives
    Fricatives are caused by turbulent airflow at the place of articulation. Not counting sibilants, English has five fricatives: /f, v, θ, ð, h/.
  • Sibilants
    Sibilants are a subset of fricatives. They have a characteristic intensity, which is why they’re used in interjections like psst and shhh. English has four sibilants: /s, z, ʃ, ʒ/.
  • Approximants
    Approximants have little obstruction to airflow. English has four approximants: /j, w, l, r/.
  • Laterals
    Lateral consonants involve airflow going around the sides of the tongue instead of over it. You’ll see categories like lateral fricative or lateral approximant. English has only one lateral consonant: /l/.
  • Semivowels
    A subset of approximants, not distinguished on the IPA chart but often used by linguists. They’re phonetically similar to vowels, but they appear at the onset of a syllable rather than in the middle like a normal vowel. English has two semivowels: /j, w/.
  • Affricates
    A stop that immediately releases airflow with a fricative. In English /t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ/ are recognized as the major affricates.

The IPA consonant table has grey cells for types of articulations that are impossible at certain places of articulation. For example, you can’t have nasals further back than the glottis because it’s too far back for air to be redirected through the nasal passage, and you can’t have lateral airflow around the tongue in places too far forward or backward for the tongue to reach.

Cells that are empty but not grey are possible to articulate, but produce sounds that aren’t found in any natural language. When languages are discovered to use those sounds, new symbols are created for them.


2.3 Voicing

Some consonants are voiced and others are unvoiced. As the terms suggest, they’re the same except that one is spoken with vibration of the voice box while the other sound is made by airflow alone.

Many consonants come in voiced-unvoiced pairs that otherwise have the same type and place of articulation. Take ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ for example: if you touch the front of your neck—on the Adam’s apple—and alternate between making a snake-like hiss or a bee-like buzz, you’ll feel vibration only for the voiced /z/ sound, but won’t need to move your tongue or change the airflow.











Obstruents are a category of consonants whose formation involves some form of obstruction in the airflow. Only obstruent consonants—stops, fricatives, and sibilants—can be unvoiced. Obstruents contrast with sonorants, which include nasals, approximants, and vowels.

Many are voiced-only with no unvoiced counterpart. There is only one consonant, /ʔ/, which is unvoiced and lacks a voiced counterpart. Most sonorant consonants can be articulated without voicing, but no known natural languages use unvoiced sonorants.

3. Vowels

Much of the inconsistency in English spelling comes from historical spelling. English vowel sounds shifted in the Middle Ages, a change over 250 years called the Great Vowel Shift, but the written language didn’t change to match. This is responsible for a lot of strange spelling. Boot was pronounced how we now say boatbite was pronounced how we now say beet, and so on.


3.1 Height, Backness, Roundedness

Like consonants, vowels are also determined by three factors. The first two factors are the spatial position of your tongue: height, how high or low it is and thus how ‘closed’ or ‘open’ the airflow channel is, and backness, how far toward the front or back of the mouth it is.

The tongue’s points of articulation for each vowel are arranged in a trapezoid shape from the side, which is why the IPA arranges them in that shape.

The third factor is roundedness: whether or not the lips are in a rounded position while a vowel is spoken. These rounded-unrounded pairs are shown together on the standard IPA vowel chart: the right-hand one in each pair is rounded.


3.2 Diphthongs

The IPA vowels shown so far are called monophthongs, but some of the most recognizable vowel sounds are actually two monophthongs slurred together. The tongue moves between the two monophthong’s positions in a single continuous motion. For example, the name of the letter ⟨A⟩ is pronounced /eɪ/.

Consider the oy sound words like toy: it’s a diphthong made from /ɔ/ and /ɪ/. The difference is subtle, but if you try it carefully you can actually feel your tongue moving forward while you say it.

4. Syllables

Syllables are units of speech that are smaller than words but larger than letters or segments. Many writing systems are built around the syllable unit, so understanding it in more detail is useful to understand speech and open new possibilities when constructing scripts.


4.1 Onset, Nucleus, Coda

Syllables are basically a consonant-vowel-consonant sandwich. At the core is a nucleus, which can be a single monophthong vowel or a diphthong. The nucleus can optionally be preceded by one or more consonants called the onset, and followed by one or more consonants called the coda. The onset and coda are collectively called the syllable margins.


*In casual speech, the coda in strengths might be pronounced as /ŋθs/ or even just /ŋs/.

The nucleus and coda are sometimes referred to as a unit called the rime, because it’s what makes words rhyme. Every word in ‘prime rhyme time slime climb’ has the same nucleus and coda: /pɹaım ɹaım taım slaım klaım/. ‘Rime’ is a rare variant of the word ‘rhyme’ and is used to distinguish the phonetic concept from the poetry concept.

There are also syllabic consonants: consonants that are used as a syllable nucleus. Examples include the /m/ in rhythm, the /n/ in button, and the /l/ in bottle.


4.2 Sonority

Consonants can’t be placed in syllable margins in a random order. Consonants have a property called sonority by which they’re ranked in a sonority hierarchy:

1Vowels (most sonorous)
2Semivowel approximantsw, j
3Liquid approximantsl, ɹ
4Nasalsm, n, ŋ
5Fricativesf, v, s, z, θ, ð, ʃ, ʒ, h
6Stops (least sonorous)p, b, t, d, k, g

This ranked order determines how most syllables are structured, which is called the sonority sequencing principle. The more sonorant a consonant is, the closer it can occur to the nucleus. You can pronounce flirt as a single syllable, but not lfitr—at least not without pronouncing the more sonorous outer consonants as syllabic consonants. All syllables are structured in a rising and falling arc of sonority:

Well, not all syllables follow this pattern. There are some exceptions:

  • Sonority plateaus are when there are consecutive consonants with the same sonority, like the fricatives in the onset of sphere /sfɪɹ/ or the stops in the coda of act /akt/.
  • Sonority reversals are exceptions to the sonority sequencing principle, when a less-sonorous consonant is closer to the nucleus than an adjacent more-sonorous consonant. In English and other languages, this is particularly common with sibilant-plosive combinations.


4.3 Phonotactics

The sonority sequencing principle isn’t the only constraint on syllable structure. Every language has its own phonotactics.

Phonotactics basically means which sound combinations are allowed in a language. In English, most individual consonants can be in the onset or coda, but /ʒ, ŋ/ can’t be in onsets and /h/ can’t be in codas. In Chinese, Hebrew, Swahili, and other languages though, /ŋ/ can be used in a syllable onset.

English is called a (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C)(C) or (C)3V(C)5 language, which means that its syllable structure has an obligatory vowel nucleus and up to three consonants in the onset and up to five in the coda. No real word uses this full range, but strengths /stɹεŋkθs/ comes close. An example of a five-consonant coda is angsts /æŋksts/.

Phonotactic structures can be represented with diagrams. The one below shows the five possible combinations of three-consonant onsets allowed in English. The two-consonant onset diagram has 26 possible combinations.

Some languages are restricted in how many consonants are allowed in the onsets and codas. Japanese, for example, has much more restrictive phonotactics, which means simpler syllables. Japanese is (C)V(N), which means it only allows one consonant in a syllable onset—with the exception of the affricates /tʃ/, /dʒ/, and /ts/—and /n/ is the only consonant that can occur in a coda.

This page simplifies some details about IPA: you can visit Wikipedia to expand your understanding further.

English spelling is notoriously not phonetically accurate, and the letterforms of the Roman alphabet obscure many relationships between similar sounds. Without a knowledge of phonetics and sound relationships, your constructed scripts would likely inherit these biases.