I was recently reading an academic paper on Amdo Tibetan phonetics and the author uses IPA vowel diacritics that look like "less-than" and "greater-than" signs.

Here is a picture so you know what I'm talking about:

nonstandard IPA vowel diacritics

These are narrow phonetic transcriptions in IPA and the greater-than and less-than signs are being used as vowel diacritics, but I cannot find these diacritics listed on the IPA chart, nor can I find them on Wikipedia's list of nonstandard IPA symbols.

As you can see, the author uses the standard diacritic + to indicate "advanced", so these symbols cannot mean advanced/retracted.

Amdo Tibetan is not a tonal language, so these symbols cannot be related to tones.

The paper is an analysis of the pronunciation of single words and it does not mention prosody, so I can't imagine that the diacritics are prosodic in nature.

What do these less-than and greater-than vowel diacritics mean?

  • I don't know, but I could they indicate rising and falling tone?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 23:32
  • Amdo Tibetan is not a tonal language. But perhaps you mean rising and falling prosodic intonation?
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 23:37
  • 1
    The original paper can be found here: repository.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/dspace/handle/2433/87841
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 1:41
  • 1
    The paper is in Japanese, but the title translates as "Phonetic analysis of the nomadic Chabcha-Cherje dialect of Amdo Tibetan." It was published in 2004 in Kyoto University Linguistic Research. Basically it is a list of words in Tibetan with their pronunciations in the Chabcha-Cherje dialect transcribed using narrow phonetic transcriptions.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 1:45
  • 1
    @AlexB, I sent an e-mail to the author, but I haven't received any reply. Yes, I suppose it is a typo or font limitation. The author is a professor of linguistics-- all his other papers are similar in nature (phonetic descriptions of Tibetan dialects) and use standard IPA for transcriptions.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 13:12

2 Answers 2


These diacritics are listed in Unicode documentation as being particular to the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet. In the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet, the diacritics are documented on Wikipedia as indicating "retraction" and "advancement." It is not clear whether this should be tongue root or tongue body retraction/advancement, but I am guessing the former.

  • 4
    I finally got a reply from the author. Apparently his transcription was a mixture of IPA and SUT (Suomalais-ugrilainen Transkriptio, i.e. the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet). The author's explanation was as follows: < means tongue backwards from the normal articulatory position; > means tongue advanced from the normal articulatory position.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 20:51

They could be indicators for more/less rounded.

As per this wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_articulation the symbols should be left & right half ring below, but perhaps the author didn't find the right font.

  • But then the + would have to mean something other than an advanced position, as Joshua says?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 23:41
  • 2
    I also considered this as a possibility, but elsewhere in the paper the author uses many other IPA diacritics (devoicing, nasalization, advanced, retracted), so it seems odd to me that this font would lack diacritics for rounding. But this may very well be the case.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 23:51

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