The sound that represents the English <w>, as in "week", is the voiced labio-velar approximant /w/. In the "Consonant" section of the Wiki page for the IPA, however, /w/ isn't listed, and there's no section for "labio-velar". In the "Consonant" article, it is listed under "co-articulated consonants", but not in the main table.

I was just wondering why /w/ doesn't get a place in the English IPA table? Even if it's a co-articulated consonant, given its extreme frequency, doesn't it merit another column?


3 Answers 3


Your basic premise is incorrect here: /w/ is listed in the Consonant section of the IPA page on Wikipedia, under Co-articulated consonants where it belongs.

It doesn’t belong in the main table, because the main table orders consonants by place of articulation, and /w/ (like all co-articulated consonants) has multiple places of articulation: bilabial and velar, which are eight columns apart in the main table. You could of course add extra columns to the table for combined places of articulation, but that would make the table huge, unwieldy, much less clear and consistent, and much less useful.

So yes, there’s a good reason it’s not included in the main table of pulmonic consonants: there’s no place to put it without ruining the table.


The layout of an IPA chart is partly arbitrary, by which I mean that there are patterns to it, but those patterns aren't necessary the only patterns that would have been reasonable. They just are what they are. I don't think you'll learn much about linguistics itself (as opposed to the history of linguistics) from trying to study them. The official chart has been revised several times.

The Wikipedia article "History of the International Phonetic Alphabet" shows that ⟨w⟩ has variously been placed under the labial or velar columns in past charts. E.g. there is a chart published in 1912 where ⟨w⟩ is listed in the same column as ⟨p b m⟩. You can see it here.

If you want to make your own chart with a column for /w/, you can do that. It just will be different from the most recently published official chart from the International Phonetic Association. (Unless you become a member of the IPA Council or otherwise manage to convince them to publish a revised chart with a column for /w/.) Many people, including many linguists, sometimes use IPA symbols in non-official ways: it's not a big deal to make a chart with non-official ordering of IPA symbols.

The article you linked to states "The main chart includes only consonants with a single place of articulation." That is an explanation of sorts. I don't know whether there are records of any more detailed considerations made by the IPA.

The Wikipedia article does include ⟨w⟩ in the "Consonant" section. That section has the subheaders Pulmonic consonants, Non-pulmonic consonants, Affricates, Co-articulated consonants. It shows these as sections above each other; the IPA presents the different sections on a page. The complete chart includes all of them. Wikipedia adds some symbol + diacritic combinations to its charts.

The chart that you've been looking at is not an "English IPA table"; it's just an IPA table. If you look at the table used in the Wikipedia article "English phonology", /w/ is charted as the intersection of the "velar" column and approximant row, which works because English does not have a non-labialized velar approximant to contrast with /w/. That's different from what you'll see in the official IPA chart; however, if the reader can understand it, why does that matter?


The reason that it is apparently not listed is that you are using Wikipedia. If you consult the official chart, you will find it. It is listed under "other symbols", below non-pulmonic consonants. The reason why it isn't in some row along with other approximants is that it is classed as a labial-velar, and there is no column in the "main chart" for labial-velar. This is why the alveolo-palatal fricatives are in the "other" section.

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