I am not to well versed in all of the inner and outer workings of the international phonetic alphabet, and I was curious if /∅/, not to be confused with /ø/, could always be used for silent characters.

A fine example would be with the word light, transliterating it as [ˈlaɪ∅t] as opposed to the usual [ˈlaɪt].

2 Answers 2


IPA is not typically used for transliteration. It is often used for phonemic transcription, and sometimes for phonetic transcription. (Phonemic transcriptions are conventionally enclosed with slashes, and phonetic transcriptions are conventionally enclosed with square brackets.)

I am not an expert on the IPA, but based on my experience reading linguistics articles and things like that, I would say that the symbol ∅ shows up mostly in descriptions of rules or sound changes (like "f > ∅ /V_V"). I have never seen it used in the context of phonetic transcription of an utterance.

The symbol ∅ does not even seem to be part of the International Phonetic Alphabet, techncially speaking: I can't see it anywhere on the official IPA chart as of 2015. Wikipedia lists some other uses of the empty set symbol in linguistics.

There is no IPA police that will arrest you if you transcribe the pronunciaton of light as "[ˈlaɪ∅t]", but I don't see the point of doing this. A phonetic transcription is not supposed to indicate information about the spelling of a word.

  • I understand and agree. IPA is used for pronunciation, but sometimes it is nice to keep it close. Like using a /g̊/ instead of a /k/. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 19:26
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    @MatthewT.Scarbrough: Sometimes. Actually, there are two kinds of justifications I have seen for the use of [g̊] in phonetic transcriptions: one is just to keep it close to the spelling, but another is that some people feel that [k], used in a transcription of a language like English, implies a "fortis" voiceless consonant, and [g̊] supposedly implies a lenis voiceless consonant. I don't think that distinction is officially part of the IPA though: as far as I know, the IPA letter "k" is formally underspecified in terms of "lenis" or "fortis". Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 19:30
  • @sumelic Or use [kʰ] for the English ⟨k/c⟩. As a speaker of a language that distinguishes aspiration, I cringe every time I see [k] for English or Swedish :) While the IPA does not officially distinguish [k] from [g̊], I do feel that maintaining such a distinction in phonetic transcriptions can be helpful. For example, the ⟨c⟩ in 'scape' as opposed to the ⟨g⟩ in 'gape' when whispering, or 'fan' versus a whispered 'van'. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 15:43
  • @sami.spricht.sprache In phonetic terms (which is what brass tacks was talking about here, hence the [square brackets]), both [k] and [g̊] will generally represent /g/ in English, not /k/, except in the sequence /sk/. Commented Feb 11 at 13:18

To transcribe, silent letters? No, not really. For silent letters, you could just exclude them phonetically. To transcribe to IPA, [ˈlaɪt] is the more accurate form. Writing it as [ˈlaɪ∅t] risks the tendency of people pronouncing gh as a vowel. ø is in the ipa chart but it's used to indicate a Close-mid front rounded vowel, not a silent sound. It's a relatively common sound in many Germanic and Nordic languages. In Norwegian, Danish and Faroese, and most of Scandinavia ø is used for the sound. In Finnish, Estonian, Icelandic, Finnish and German, Ö is used for the sound. In French, this sound exists aswell, but it's written in two different ways. In French, it can be represented by the digraphs œu or eu. In Dutch, eu is used for that sound aswell. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close-mid_front_rounded_vowel

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