Why some symbols in phonology charts are put in parentheses or brackets, such as (z), or [ɲ], and why there is a tilde ~ in some places, such as dz [dʒ ~ dz]. Wondering what that means exactly, if it just means that the sound represented by their alphabet dz is within the range between and dz in IPA terms.


Not all symbols used in phonological and phonetic descriptions are letters of the IPA. The symbol "~" typically means "alternates with", for example "a~æ" could be that either a or æ would be possible in a given context (i.e. the sounds are in free variation). It also can be used to refer to contextual variation, for example "The plural suffix, s ~ z ~ ɨz...". Square brackets canonically refer to phonetic values, so [dz ~ dʒ] would be that the thing in question (perhaps phonemic /dz/) is realised either as phonetic [dz] or as phonetic [dʒ]). It does not mean "some value intermediate between", it means "either this value or that value". There is no notation for talking of ranges of realization that are finer-grained than two similar transcriptions. If the realization of a sound was "anything between [dz] and [dʒ]", you would have to say that in words.

Parenthesis has two different meanings. In a list of phonemes, it implies that there is something marginal about the item in parentheses, for example one might list "(x)" in a phoneme chart of English, since there are a few words which some people pronouns with the velar fricative [x] (Bach, loch, Chanukah, chutzpah, Khalil). However, in writing a rule, it means "0 or 1 occurrences of", so "a→b/_(c)d" means "a becomes b when followed by d with zero or one occurrence of c intervening".

  • 3
    A cleaner way to say "0 or 1 occurrences of" might be "optional", as in the syllable structure (C)V "a vowel preceded by an optional consonant".
    – Draconis
    Sep 16 '18 at 16:00

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