There are many weird characters in IPA, like Glottal Stop symbol ʔ for example.

Why these characters? Is there any reason for selecting them, or was their selection just arbitrary?

2 Answers 2


In fact many of the IPA symbols evolved from symbols aleady being used before IPA, some of which in turn evolved from symbols in various languages. Others were modified Latin letters by reflection, rotation, small capitals, or added diacritical marks. Some of these diacritics became merged with the letters. Some of the diacritics became abstracted and standardized for use with many letters. Some may be whimsical inventions.

In the case of the IPA glottal stop symbol ʔ I believe it comes from ? being used on typewriter keyboards by arabists.

These in turn came from a pair of special symbols used by arabists that looked like a small semicircles. ʾ for hamza and ʿ for 'ayn. They were I believe simplified handwritten signs supposed to be suggest the shapes of either or both the Arabic hamza ء and 'ayn ع.

To me though, it seems at some point the directions of the signs seems to have been switched ...

  • So, @hippietrail, you mean that behind the selection of any IPA phonetic character (symbol), there are some reasons, like being similar to something, or representing something, etc. Yeah? Sep 16, 2011 at 10:03
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    @Saeed: Yes. If there are specific characters you are interested in I think you should ask them as individual questions. Sep 16, 2011 at 10:04

The book to go to is "Phonetic Symbol Guide" by G. K. Pullum and W. A. Ladusaw. Page xxii is a summary of the principles the IPA (association) uses to select the symbols for the IPA (alphabet) and if you wonder about a specific symbol you can look it up in the same book. Most of the symbols have their own separate histories, for instance one of the principles is that letters taken from the latin alphabet is to stand for the most common (as in number of languages, not number of speakers) sound for that letter. However the {r} is used for the alveolar trill, which isn't really that common.

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