The IPA lists Plosives first, then Nasals, then Trills, then Taps, then Fricatives, then Approximants. Why is it ordered that way?

I wondered if it was to do with ease of use. However, it doesn't seem that making an "m" sound takes anymore effort than an "k" sounds.

I then wondered if it was to do with the order in which humans develop phonemes. However, I found that infants generally learn Approximants first, then Plosives, then Nasals.

I then wondered if it's to do with frequency of use. Plosives are common in normal speech. Also, people do seem to use Nasals a lot considering Speech Disfluency Fillers (e.g. um). Could this be the reason? Or, is there a different reason for the ordering?

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    I don't understand the question. The order in the IPA chart is plosives, nasals, trills, tap/flap, fricative, approximant, lateral approximant. Are you asking why it was ordered this way. – user6726 Nov 17 '17 at 16:30
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    You seem to be asking about the order used in the Wikipedia IPA table, not the order used in the official IPA chart (which you can download from the website internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart) – sumelic Nov 17 '17 at 17:47
  • @sumelic You're right! Why does Wikipedia order it differently from how the iPA officially orders it? – jamiestroud69 Nov 19 '17 at 12:34
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    @jamiestroud69: Not sure, but I'd guess it's based on the historical variations in IPA order mentioned in user6726's answer – sumelic Nov 19 '17 at 18:04
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The organisation of the consonant and vowel tables of the IPA is an approximation of the place and type of the phonemes' articulation.

Hence the columns are arranged in order from left to right according to place of articulation in the mouth from the lips to the back of the throat, and the rows are sorted according to their manner of articulation by increasing aperture, from the most closed articulation to the most open, which is why it starts with stops then nasals, then fricatives, then the others which necessitate to open the mouth more and let the air flow more freely.

Indeed, if you read Saussure's Cours de Linguistique Général, you'll see that to him, vowels are merely further than consonants on the same aperture continuum.

This understanding is now probably a bit dated, but it's not completely wrong either.

  • That's a great explanation, but based on that reasoning: shouldn't Nasals be before Stops? After all, you can make a Nasal sound without opening your mouth at all. – jamiestroud69 Nov 19 '17 at 12:57
  • In your original question, you say it's nasals first :-) – Typhon Nov 19 '17 at 22:22
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    But to elaborate : sometimes nasals are put before stops and sometimes after, but the truth is that they're one of the myriad phonemes that just don't fit neatly in this scheme, because as you point out, you can produce them without opening your mouth... but on the other hand, there's a continuous flow through the nose. – Typhon Nov 19 '17 at 22:24
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    So it makes sense to put nasals next to stops since they are articulated the same as stops, except for the velum being lowered, but there's no obvious reason to put them either before or after. Maybe the fact that there's continuous flow played a role in the decision to put them after, or maybe it's just an arbitrary decision that stuck because you have to put them somewhere. – Typhon Nov 19 '17 at 22:27
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    I find that this is the genius of IPA. If it is not super-precise, it is certainly extremely didactic for IPA learners. – Eleshar Nov 24 '17 at 19:45

Brahmic scripts such as Devanagari (the standard script for Sanskrit) employs a phonetically-based order of letters, which is based on Vedic phonetic instructions (śikṣā). The creators of the IPA were well aware of Indian phonetic tradition, though IPA order diverges superficially from the varṇamālā sequence (Sanskrit places are ordered back-to-front and IPA is front-to-back). Because Vedic phonetic theory differs somewhat in details and purposes from IPA, the specific order of letters differs as well, but the organizational idea of IPA order comes from from Vedic phonetics. Earlier version of the IPA were closer to Sanskrit order (back-to-front, fricatives last), in 1905, but in 1912 place of articulation order was reversed. Fricatives bubbled upwards in 1932, then in 1979, the order was nasal-plosive-fricative-trill. At the Kiel convention, the current order was set (here), but some items were exiled from the main chart to the non-pulmonic box.

One would probably have to interview participants in the 1989 convention to get a good history of why those changes were made; there are no survivors from the earliest days. One could read through Le Maître phonétique to see what discussion there is preceding presentations of new orders of letters.

Nasals consonants are occlusives, just like oral stops; this means that in both cases there's no air escape through the mouth.

When it comes to ordering pulmonic consonant sounds by manner of articulation, it makes sense that similar manners of articulation appear close to each other in the table. Also, the possible places of articulation in stops and nasals are almost the same (apart from the epiglottal and glottal stops, which have no nasal counterpart).

By that logic, fricatives are put next to approximants, flaps/taps next to trills, and laterals are also grouped together.

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