Some IPA symbols such as ɲ lack any name, and when I tried searching for the symbol online, the pages I got only showed palatal nasal.

But I wonder what I should call it when I talk with others. Is there any standard conventional name for it? Or what do linguists call it, such as at an international conference?


Good question! IPA symbols generally fall into one of three categories, in common use:

  • Some symbols have a conventional name: æ is "ash", θ is "theta", ŋ is "engma". Standard Latin letters would also fall into this group, like v being "vee".
  • Some symbols are named based on their shape: ɤ is "rams-horns", ɔ is "open o", ħ is "h-bar". These are the names that are most often used in Unicode.
  • Some symbols are just named after their IPA usage: ɲ is "palatal nasal" (or "palatal n"), ɖ is "voiced retroflex stop" (or "retroflex d"), ʍ is "voiceless labiovelar approximant" (or "voiceless w"). These names are also sometimes used in Unicode, usually for more recent additions.

In this particular case, I've never heard anyone call ɲ anything other than "palatal nasal". That's the name I'd expect to hear in a conference.

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    It has been called 'ɛnjə' in conferences for decades. Whereas, ʈ is just called 'retroflex t' or 'voiceless retroflex plosive', depending on one's persuasion. – user6726 Apr 23 at 15:21
  • @user6726 Interesting; I haven't heard that, but feel free to post it as an answer! – Draconis Apr 23 at 17:35
  • Eɲe (or eñe or enye or however you want to write it) is the only way I’ve ever heard it referred to. I’ve heard ɔ called ‘mirrored c’ as well. Most of the ones that have no conventional names I’ve mainly just heard called by the sound they represent where feasible, so ʍ is /ʍə/, ɖ is /ɖə/, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 24 at 15:24

Almost every character that can be input and shown on modern computers is defined in Unicode and has a code point, so of course each IPA symbol has a name. <ɲ> is defined as "LATIN SMALL LETTER N WITH LEFT HOOK" in the Unicode code chart. Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (1999: 166–184) also has a list of symbols with descriptions, which calls <ɲ> "Left-tail N". Both these descriptions are based in part on the naming conventions set out in Pullum & Ladusaw's Phonetic Symbol Guide (1986/1996), which calls <ɲ> "Left-Hook N". SIL International's ScriptSource and Wikipedia also have summaries of the IPA symbols and what to call them.

But AFAIK only a few nicknames like "eng" and "ezh" carry even a modest amount of currency in daily parlance among linguists. In a setting like a conference, simply "the symbol for the palatal nasal" etc. may be the way that is understood by the broadest possible audience.

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    Unicode names are completely permanent under the Unicode Stability Policy. If a character is given a "bad" name (for any conceivable definition of "bad"), it will not be corrected. So Unicode names should be used with caution. – Kevin Apr 23 at 0:10
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    @Kevin Not entirely true. From that same page: “In cases of outright errors in character names such as misspellings, a character may be given a formal name alias.” – VGR Apr 23 at 19:21
  • @VGR Sadly I haven't ever seen that happen, even for outright errors like Ƣ being called "CAPITAL LETTER OI". (It has nothing to do with O or I, it's derived from Q with a long tail.) – Draconis Apr 23 at 21:34
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    @Draconis Actually, if you look in unicode.org/Public/UNIDATA/NamesList.txt, you’ll see that codepoint 01A2 is named “LATIN CAPITAL LETTER OI” but has a formal alias (denoted in the data file with %) of “LATIN CAPITAL LETTER GHA”. – VGR Apr 23 at 21:43
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    @VGR: Yes, that's my point. You have to go and look up those aliases separately from the main character name, which many people will not think to do (witness for example your discussion with Draconis). So if you tell people to "use the Unicode name," they may just take your advice at face value. – Kevin Apr 23 at 22:21

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