Some alphabets capitalize proper nouns, others capitalize all nouns.

Does ipa notation ever get capitalized to match their written counterparts?

I would assume not, as it might be sending mixed messages - especially if they could represent different IPA letters. I don't have a definitive answer though.

  • Nope, as you correctly surmised, it is not standard practice to capitalize IPA.
    – Teusz
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 5:22

7 Answers 7


The concept of "capitalization" is not part of the official IPA

The official chart showing the International Phonetic Alphabet is downloadable from the IPA website. IPA letters are not defined in cased pairs. Most of them look like lowercase letters (and I believe are treated as lowercase letters in Unicode encoding; I don't know if there are any exceptions to that). Some look like small caps; these are just separate letters, representing separate sounds. (Usually the sound is similar in some regard to the source letter, but there is no single rule connecting the sound of an IPA letter that looks like a Latin alphabet small-caps letter to the sound of an IPA letter that looks like the "corresponding" Latin alphabet lowercase letter.)

Obviously, the IPA letters a, b, c... z, which are identical to letters of the familar Latin alphabet, have upper-case equivalents A, B, C... Z in the context of the larger set of Latin alphabet characters, but these upper-case equivalents are not formally defined as part of the IPA, and there is no common informal use for them in phonetic transcriptions that I know of.

Use of capital letters in some phonological transcriptions

In phonological transcriptions, full-sized capital letters of the Latin alphabet may be used in a way Typhon mentioned in a comment below:

I have seen upper case used to denote archiphonemes in broad transcriptions. I'm not sure if it's standard practice. – Typhon

I would say this still isn't exactly "capitalization" because the capital letters don't correspond to a single lowercase IPA letter, but to a set of them (e.g., N might be used as a symbol representing the neutralization of both /n/ and /m/).

Also, a transcription with archiphonemes is fairly definitely not phonetic (I don't mean to say that there is a clear line between phonetic and phonemic transcriptions, just that I think most people agree that no matter how blurry the line is, archiphonems are on the phonemic side, and maybe even beyond it i.e. on a "third" level).

Use of capital letters in some practical orthographies based on the IPA

The practical orthographies of some languages contain letters taken from the IPA (or from other similar phonetic transcription systems), and in this context, capitalized/uppercase letters often may occur. But these are not official IPA, just similar but distinct scripts. There are even some upper-case equivalents to certain letters of the IPA outside of the 26 basic Latin ones: while these uppercase forms are not part of the IPA, they are used in some alphabets like the "Africa Alphabet" (which has Ʃ as the upper-case form of ʃ, Ʒ as the uppercase form of ʒ, Ŋ as the uppercase form of ŋ, and some others).

In the case of the glottal stop letter <ʔ>, there is some variation. It is used as a case-invariant letter in the orthographies of some languages, but there is also a pair of derived characters that are used as a cased equivalent in the orthographies of some other languages: uppercase <Ɂ> and lowercase <ɂ>.

You can see more examples at the Wikipedia article Case variants of IPA letters

  • There used to be a cursive variant, too. It looked cool. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 6:40
  • The <7> used in some Coast Salish languages is a rendition of a glottal stop. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 19:14
  • 4
    I have seen upper case used to denote archiphonemes in broad transcriptions. I'm not sure if it's standard practice.
    – Typhon
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 22:20
  • ‘ǝ’ has two uppercase forms: ‘Ǝ’ in some African orthographies and ‘Ə’ in some Turkic orthographies, I believe. @melissa_boiko: I particularly liked the cursive ‘ᴚ’ [turned R] and two-storey ‘a’. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 2:51

No, you can't capitalise IPA characters, because there are enough IPA characters that look like upper case letters that it would be very confusing: ʙ, ɢ, ʜ, ɪ, ʟ, ɴ, and ʀ are all distinct IPA characters and are not the same sounds as b, g, h, i, l, n, and r.

  • 1
    For the record the Unicode "small capitals" like your ʙ, ɢ, ʜ, ɪ, ʟ, ɴ, and ʀ are all defined to be "lowercase letters", albeit ones that do not change if mapped to uppercase.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 15:24

IPA transcriptions transcribe sounds or phonemes. Even when in a broad transcription a symbol represents a phoneme, it is in some sense referring to a group of possible sounds, which can contrast with another group of possible sounds to differentiate meaning. IPA transcriptions make no allowances for the orthography or written conventions of language apart from in three specific ways:

  1. Most transcription systems allow for white space between words. This is just to make the transcription easier to read. It is not for any kind of punctuation reason.

  2. When a group of scholars decide upon a convention for representing the phonemes of a particular language in language-specific, phonemic transcriptions, they may sometimes choose one symbol over another because it more closely resembles the orthography. So, whereas Southern Standard British English /e/ is in between [e] and [ɛ], most authorities use /e/ as opposed to /ɛ/ to represent the phoneme because this is how the phoneme is most often 'represented' in the orthography. This it is felt, will make life easier for learners of English, who will have to use these transcriptions in dictionaries and language learning materials.

  3. When used in written essays about phonetics or phonology, lists of phones or phonemes are often separated within their brackets by commas. The comma does not feature as an IPA diacritic and so serves to show that we are talking about a list of discrete phones or phonemes and not a string of sound or a string of phonemes. So people tend to write [p, t, k] or /p, t, k/, for example, as opposed to /p/, /t/, /k/ and so on.

This, however, is as far as it goes. We do not allow for punctuation marks or capitalisation and so forth in phonemic or phonetic transcriptions. Phones and phonemes do not have capital or small case realisations! Several other problems would arise if we did. First of all many symbols used in punctuation have a distinct specific meaning when used in IPA transcription. To illustrate, the exclamation mark, < ! >, represents an alveolar click; an apostrophe < ’ > after a consonant makes it ejective. Most importantly here, the IPA system actually uses small caps capitals to represent specific types of phone. So [ʙ,ɢ, ʜ, ɪ, ʟ, ɴ] and [ʀ] are completely different and distinct sounds from [b, g, h, i, l, n] and [r]. If you use a < B > to represent a [b], you will actually be indicating a voiced bilabial trill—in other words a bilabial raspberry—instead of a plosive.

IPA transcriptions match sounds not their written counterparts!

  • Doesn't the spacing present a problem in that in many languages it is often the case that word boundaries and syllable boundaries don't match up?
    – Casey
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 20:01
  • 1
    @Casey Yes, people occasionally get worked up about where to put the spaces. But it doesn't amount to much really because the white space doesn't actually signify anything phonetic :) Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 15:28

No, IPA is used to describe only how words are pronounced, which is independent of how the words would be written in any specific writing system. Capitalization doesn't have any meaning in spoken language.


You are never supposed to capitalise letters, though small capitals are sometimes used (e. g. the bilabial trill is represented as /ʙ/ and the uvular trill is /ʀ/). It would be both confusing and irrelevant to capitalize letters, considering especially the confusion that would occur when presented with vowels such as /ɑ/ and /a/, both of which have the capital counterpart ⟨A⟩, or /œ/ with its counterpart ⟨Œ⟩, which is reminiscent of the open front rounded vowel /ɶ/.

  • The capital counterpart of ɑ can be written as Ɑ. The Wikipedia article "Latin alpha" says cased "Ɑ ɑ" has been used as a letter distinct from "A a" in orthographies designed for some languages of Cameroon such as Fe'fe' and Mbembe. The proposal for adding the capital letter to Unicode further mentions some use as a phonetic symbol for a voiceless vowel. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 6:20
  • I don't know of any common way to distinguish capitalized ɶ from capitalized œ, but even the lowercase letters aren't always displayed distinctly and that isn't actually a big deal because "ɶ" doesn't seem to be a distinct phoneme in any language. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 6:20
  • (I just noticed that the Cameroon alphabet letter actually seems to have a somewhat different shape from the preferred form of the IPA letter, but this is treated as a typographical detail in Unicode.) Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 6:30
  • @sumelic Oh, interesting, I hadn't heard of the Ɑ before, although I've also never actually seen it used in transcription. Also, true, /ɶ/ is relatively uncommon, but it is used in a few languages, as well as some conlangs, so it can be confusing for people learning the IPA. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 2:58
  • The capital "Ɑ" letter seems to be a relatively recent addition to Unicode--the proposal is from 2005. I agree that capitalizing IPA letters is likely to be confusing to people who are not familar with the specific context. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 3:00

This might help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Case_variants_of_IPA_letters

There've been cases (no pun intended) where I find myself in need of IPA in upper case.

  • Could you mention some of these cases? Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 20:10

NEVER capitalise IPA. In IPA, the only form of capitalisation is with the small capitals like /ɪ/, /ɢ/, /ɴ/, /ʀ/, /ʏ/, /ʙ/, /ʜ/, and /ʟ/

  • Welcome to Linguistics.SE. This answer does not seem to add anything besides what has been said in existing answers. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 17:09

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