On the Wikipedia page for the International Phonetic Alphabet, slashes for phonemes are mentioned quite casually, without getting into the discussion of how or if it makes sense to use a phonetic alphabet to transcribe phonemes.

I can understand how it makes sense to have an international phonetic alphabet, since all humans have the same speech organs.

However, phonemes are a completely different animal. They're an abstraction of one or more phones which are in some sense considered equivalent in a specific language.

I would therefore think that such a thing as an international phonemic alphabet wouldn't make sense at all. Although there could be 2 languages having a phoneme that cover the same set of allophones realized in the same way in the same contexts in both languages, that would be due to relatedness or mere coincidence. It wouldn't work in the general case.

Even if we simply consider a phoneme just a set of allophones, the characters in a truly international phonemic alphabet would potentially need to contain all subsets of the set of phones. There are exponentially many of these compared to phones.

So is using IPA for phonemes completely bona fide? If so please explain how the above shortcomings are handled. Or are the above shortcomings understood, but IPA just used for phonemic transcriptions anyway because it turns out to be convenient?

  • 8
    The usual answer is to say that the symbols used for phonemes are arbitrary, but recommended symbols are IPA symbols for the most part, and for the most part, symbols that appear in the IPA are used to name phonemes. I was taught that, unless it was a really odd sound, the IPA symbol for the principal ("unmarked"; "elsewhere") allophone should be used as the symbol for the phoneme.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 3:01
  • 1
    Thanks @jlawler, this makes sense and corresponds to my rough understanding of how phonemes are usually transcribed. I guess it just strikes me as a bit sloppy of Wikipedia to describe phonemic transcription as IPA, when it's really just characters borrowed from IPA, but conceptually a different alphabet.
    – dainichi
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 3:16
  • 1
    It's not a single alphabet; even English has half a dozen different phonemic alphabets, including the one I favor.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 3:19
  • Yep @jlawler, that is why I have no idea what this is doing on a page describing IPA.
    – dainichi
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 3:56

1 Answer 1


I think what the question boils down to is whether phonological primitives have intrinsic phonetic content. I can first give a "consensus" answer, and then point to some issues which seem to me to be unresolved.

Consensus view: This view is most clearly set out in Chomsky & Miller (1963) and Chomsky (1964) [the latter being a substantially revised version of Chomsky's plenary address at the 1962 ICL]. There are three basic ways of defining phonological features: (i) as distinctive features, which are used to organize contrast-bearing differences, and (ii) as indexes for grouping classes of sounds which uniformly undergo or trigger a phonological alternation, and (iii) indexes for grouping sounds by their positional characteristics. The features of (i) are thought to have a physical interpretation which is language-independent. Furthermore, it is assumed that there is a small number of such features, and their logical combinations form a universal phonetic alphabet. Such a phonetic alphabet (e.g., the IPA) can be used for representing the contrasting segments in any language. Under the consensus view, however, the same set of features can be used for (i), (ii), and (iii). This means that it is assumed that all phonological regularities can be characterized with reference to labels which have a lanaguage-independent physical interpretation. Since a phoneme represents a group of sounds related by phonological regularities, a phoneme can be represented as a symbol taken from the universal phonetic alphabet, its allophones differing from each other by feature-changing operations. Under this view, it makes perfect sense to use IPA symbols to represent phonemes. Such a view is assumed implicitly in most work in theoretical phonology today.

Some criticisms: There are two basic problems that have been identified with the consensus view. The first is that languages show consistent but subtle differences between similar-sounding sounds. This fact renders the enterprise of developing a universal phonetic alphabet less attractive. This kind of argument is made in several works by Ladefoged (e.g., 1980). The second issue is that there are so-called "crazy rules" in phonology which are difficult to account for in terms of phonetically specifiable features (therefore calling into question the identity between features of type (i) and of types (ii)--(iii)). This issue is touched upon in Fudge (1967) and subsequent work by different scholars. If these types of criticisms of the consensus view are accepted, then it does not make sense for reasons other than convenience to use IPA symbols to represent phonemes.

Noam Chomsky. Current issues in linguistic theory. Mouton, The Hague, 1964

Noam Chomsky and George Miller. Introduction to the formal analysis of natural languages. In Robert Duncan Luce, Robert R Bush, and Eugene Galanter, editors, Handbook of mathematical psychology, volume 1, pages 271–321. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1963.

Erik C Fudge. The nature of phonological primes. Journal of Linguistics, 3(1):1–36, 1967.

Peter Ladefoged. What are linguistic sounds made of? Language, 56(3):485–502, 1980.

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