Can anyone recommend a book that a non-linguist can use to look up and pronounce words written in phonetic script?

For example, Wikipedia has this written down: "[ɛks’pɑzətɔri]". I want to learn how to read and use the phonetic script used in this example.

  • 1
    You can’t really learn IPA without also learning the basics of how phonetics and sounds work. The Wikipedia article on IPA is actually quite good for non-linguists: it’s somewhat technical, but not overly so, and you can always click through to read more about what unfamiliar terms mean. Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 12:17
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Is there an online tool to convert IPA symbols into audio sound? - EDIT: I now see the question is asking for a book. I've retracted the close vote, but the resources mentioned in the answers to that question may still be helpful to the OP.
    – Nardog
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 13:20
  • 1
    See also here: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/q/88/172 Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 15:49
  • Nardog's link gives me exactly what a I wanted which was to be able to convert symbols resembling chicken tracks into an accurate pronunciation. Thanks.
    – Bookaholic
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 9:14

2 Answers 2


The general answer is "no", but in specific cases the answer could be "yes". First I think you need to pin down what exactly you hope to do.

The internet is now full of phonetic transcriptions of words from all sorts of languages. You might think that with some such book, you can reliably figure out from reading a phonetic transcription of a word what the word sounds like, and you could say the word so that people could understand you. But that is simply not possible: instead, you need to listen to actual recordings of the word, produced by speakers of the language. You might, however, get a general idea about what the individual letters sound like by consulting an expert demonstration chart like this. This could help clarify the meaning of the letters [æ a ɑ ɒ ɐ]. There are a few problems here. First, this is the performance by one expert (John Esling): you should also consult this chart, the performances by Peter Ladefoged. The productions are not exactly the same – the letters stand for a range of auditory values. Second, the normal value of an particular individual language sound may be somewhere between two letters (e.g. [a, æ]), so the analyst has to make a decision about the letter to use. Third, not every transcription out there is produced by an Edinburgh-tradition trained phonetician. Fourth, even if you know the values of the individual letters, there are many degrees of granularity possible in transcriptions – your example of "expository" is a fairly coarse-grained transcription that doesn't represent all of the facts present in a performance of the word, it represents (a theory of) "what is important". Typically, internet transcriptions are "broad transcriptions", except when they aren't, for some reason. So you may also need to know other rules about the language to know that "t" is probably actually [tʰ], and "r" is probably not the trill [r], but we need to know what dialect it is to pin down the exact rhotic.

However, if you have in mind just the task of reading IPA transcriptions of English and relating them to English pronunciations, you have something that is more doable. But if it is English, then you also have to bear in mind the fact that English is a language family with lots of dialects, and for the most part we only talk about "American English" vs. "British English". There are a number of online English dictionary resources with spellings, transcriptions, and sound files, even covering the two main dialects, so that you could compare what you hear to what they write. However, you may get confused with some dictionaries: Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (American English) gives [ik-ˈspä-zə-ˌtȯr-ē], which is not IPA (it also reveals a dialect detail that the first vowel in [ɪkˈspazə`tʰɔɹi] is [ɪ], not [ɛ]).

In dealing with Wikipedia entries, you have to bear in mind that anybody can edit a wiki page, and there is precious little consistency in standards for transcription. If you use one of the IPA charts above, you can hear what [i] is suppose to sound like, and then you can read the Wikipedia page on "lien" and interpret the transcription /li:n/ – you would know that it's the same as "lean" and not the same as "line". If you go to northern Minnesota, you may find someone who says [li:n], but theWiki entry was giving a broad phonemic spelling, not a details representation of an actual pronunciation.

  • There's a good pronouncing dictionary of American English -- Kenyon and Knott -- online. It uses phonemics, like this. But of course recordings are useful, and they can often be found on Wikipedia along with IPA transcriptions, usually phonemic. Or one can spring for a copy of Catford's Practical Introduction to Phonetics, which will teach you the pronunciations from inside, like you'd get in a phonetics class.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 19:09

The best is to get a dictionary of the language you are interested in, in the case of your example a dictionary of English. The dictionary needs to use IPA (not all of them do, my copy of Merriam-Webster uses a home grown phonetic transcription). It will have a section in the beginning explaining all the symbols used and giving examples of well-known words containing the sounds.

The main reason for this is that phonetic notation CAN be very explicit and detailed but usually it leaves out a lot of details that are just assumed for a specific language (e.g., details on the exact place of articulation for coronals /d, t/ or details on aspiration).

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