Is there a defined way to order phonemes, phones, or other qualities of speech, such as those represented in the IPA?

Suppose I'm listing the following sounds (and their descriptions, say, or links to wikipedia articles about them):

  • œ
  • i
  • y
  • d͡ʒ

How should they be ordered? One might try to order "alphabetically", but that seems completely arbitrary. Ordering by mouth position probably makes a lot more sense (i, y, ɨ, ʉ, ɯ, u, ɪ, ʏ, ...). But still there's a lot of room for interpretation here.

Before I spend much time thinking about this, though, I thought I'd see if there's already a pre-defined sorting order for these concepts.

  • 1
    What purpose would you like to order them for?;Usually, phonemes are displayed in classes of features (where order is arbitrary) rather then all of them in a fixed order. Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 20:49
  • @lemontree: At the moment, I'm compiling a list of minimal pairs in various languages. Something like this list, which is grouped by sound, but I can't tell that the order has any rhyme or reason.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 20:55
  • 1
    For computational purposes, there's an ordering, treating each symbol as a number. For descriptive phonetic purposes, you have to decide what order to impose on the phonetic properties you're talking about, e.g. rounding before tongue height? That choice is arbitrary-ish. For phonological purposes it would be based on a binary "in the class / out of the class" determination. Strict ordering is only necessary for the computational purpose.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 21:00

2 Answers 2


Pullum and Ladusaw¹ sort all the phonetic symbols by their shapes. They group them by the basic latin letters from which the symbols are somehow derived and add a few symbols with no clear relations (derived from numerals or interpunctuation) after the letter z.

Appendix A of the TIPA manual by Fukui Rei follows the same approach.

¹ Pullum, Geoffrey K.; William A. Ladusaw (1986). Phonetic Symbol Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-68532-2.

  • Also note that sorting schemes e.g. in Word often reflect this, though with some bugs.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 16:52

I would sort them in the order of appearance on the IPA chart. They are roughly arranged by mouth position there, which is more useful than ordering them "alphabetically" or by Unicode code points. And in any case, the IPA chart is the official source of the phonetic alphabet.

Note that on the main consonant chart the order by mouth position is from left to right, while on other consonant charts it's from top to bottom. On the vowel chart, again, it's from left to right. Approximants are towards the end of the consonant list, so I think it makes more sense to put vowels after consonants, not before.

  • 1
    Is this somehow standard? It sounds like an ad hoc scheme. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 12:20
  • @jknappen As far as I know, there is no real standard, so my suggestion is simply to put the symbols in the same order that has been used by the creators of IPA to present the alphabet.
    – michau
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 12:27
  • "in any case, the IPA chart is the official source of the phonetic alphabet" The problem is that there is not the phonetic alphabet. For the IPA alphabet, yes, the chart is the official source, but IPA itself is not the single official standard (although I agree it is the most widespread phonetic alphabet, but noone officially classified as the phonetic alphabet). I would re-word that part. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:23
  • @lemontree When I wrote "the phonetic alphabet", I meant "the phonetic alphabet in question, i.e. IPA". I'm not implying that's the only phonetic alphabet that has ever been created. It's all in the context of the question where the OP specifically mentioned IPA, and all his examples use IPA, as far as I can tell.
    – michau
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:37
  • Okay, sounds reasonable ;) Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:50

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