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It is said that in IPA, each symbol represents a unique sound. But on the Wikipedia page on the Voiceless Velar Fricative (/x/), I find these examples:

Hindustani 'ख़ुशी' /xuʃi:/ (sometimes खुशी, /kʰuʃi:/) and Assamese 'অসমীয়া' (/ɔxɔmija/).

I am a native Assamese speaker and I have learned Hindi in school for ten years, and I have been regularly conversing in it for years. To my ears, these sounds are similar but clearly distinct. Even in the audio clip that accompanies the article, I feel the first part is the Hindustani ख़ while the second part is the Assamese স. I asked my friends who too are fluent in both Assamese and Hindi and they too seem to agree.

But I understand that un-systematic intuitions like the ones me and my friends are having in this case would not count as good reason to assign different symbols.

I just wanted to know the reason: if these are the same sounds, why am I so easily able to distinguish between the two? And if they are actually different sounds, why has IPA assigned the same symbol to them?

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  • I think it means that some Hindi dialects don't contrast [x] and [kʰ] – Mellifluous Jul 15 at 8:07
  • @Mellifluous No, standard Hindi and Urdu do distinguish between [x] and [kʰ], the former is ख़ while the latter is ख (the former has a dot to its left, called the nukta, the latter doesn't). My concern is, IPA assigns [x] to both Hindi ख़ (with nukta) and Assamese স, which sound different to me and many others – Ishan Kashyap Hazarika Jul 15 at 8:20
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Yes, this is not only possible but regular practice. In general, one only notates the kind of features of a sound that are relevant for the transcription and it is left to reader to add the omitted details. So when /x/ is realised differently in Hindi/Urdu and Assamese, it is assumed that the reader is aware of that difference and knows how to pronounce a Hindi /x/ or an Assamese /x/.

See also this question and its answers.

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As jk mentioned, it's common to only transcribe the features that are relevant (a "broad" transcription). But there are a few other reasons why the mapping from symbol to sound might not be one-to-one.

First, transcriptions more often focus on phonemes (mental units representing sounds), not phones (the sounds themselves). And the naming of phonemes is pretty much arbitrary. Often they're named after phones that they correspond to, like how the English phoneme /t/ is often pronounced as the phone [t], but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule; sometimes they're given non-IPA names, like the use of in transcribing Semitic languages or ь in Slavic, and sometimes they're just given algebraic symbols, like *h₁, *h₂, and *h₃ in discussions of Proto-Indo-European. And when this happens, it doesn't necessarily mean that Arabic and Hebrew are actually pronounced the same.

Second, while the IPA provides a lot of diacritics for more precision, it also has a principle of not distinguishing sounds that aren't phonemically different in any language. This is why, for example, many voiced fricatives aren't distinguished from the corresponding approximants, and why there aren't different symbols for taps versus flaps. There's simply no known language that has a phonemic contrast between taps and flaps.

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  • 1
    True, the same /t/ is used for the English phoneme, which is alveolar and aspirated , and for the Russian one, which is dental and non-aspirated. – Yellow Sky Jul 15 at 18:17
  • But why does it have different symbols for /x/ and /χ/? Are there any languages which distinguish between them? Plus I feel (at least personally) that the dental and alveolar stops sound VERY different from each other, just because no languages distinguish between them does not mean that they are the same sound. If it was like that, then why do /ɾ/ and /ɹ/ have different symbols? Are there truly languages which differentiate between them? The two pairs seem about the same amount different from each other to me, so why is that? – Quintus Caesius - RM Jul 20 at 12:38
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM /x/ and /χ/ are distinguished by various languages in the Pacific Northwest, such as Tlingit, and /ɾ/ and /ɹ/ are distinguished in American English. On the flipside, dental and alveolar stops are distinguished in many Australian languages, but don't get different symbols for historical reasons (because the International Phonetic Association is reluctant to make new symbols at this point), so they have to make do with diacritics. – Draconis Jul 20 at 16:26
  • So the IPA just doesn’t want to? Way to go. Also, american english doesn’t even have /ɾ/, as far as I know. – Quintus Caesius - RM Jul 21 at 14:16
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM It's an allophone of /t/ and /d/ between vowels, so it might be better to say it has [ɾ] rather than /ɾ/. The point is, though, [ɾ] and [ɹ] belong to separately phonemes in AmE, while, say, the alveolar tap and alveolar flap are never known to. Anyway, yes, the Association has never been entirely consistent and there's a lot of historical baggage to deal with—that's why implosives get their own letters but ejectives and aspirates don't, for example, or why retroflexes get their own letters but dentals don't. – Draconis Jul 21 at 16:40
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To add, "in IPA, each symbol represents a unique sound" is not true even in non-phonemic transcriptions. The current Principles of the International Phonetic Association states:

The IPA is designed to be a set of symbols for representing all the possible sounds of the world's languages. The representation of these sounds uses a set of phonetic categories which describe how each sound is made. These categories define a number of natural classes of sounds that operate in phonological rules and historical sound changes. The symbols of the IPA are shorthand ways of indicating certain intersections of these categories. Thus [p] is a shorthand way of designating the intersection of the categories voiceless, bilabial, and plosive; [m] is the intersection of the categories voiced, bilabial, and nasal; and so on. The sounds that are represented by the symbols are primarily those that serve to distinguish one word from another in a language.

Also consider this passage from the Handbook of the IPA (1999: 29):

If the relevant phonological system is known, a transcription can be devised which includes any number of additional symbols to indicate the phonetic realizations of the phonemes. ... Narrowness is regarded as a continuum, so that [tʃɛkðəlɛnzwɛɫ] might be regarded as a slightly narrow (or 'narrowed') transcription, and [tʃe̞ʔ͡kð̞əlɛ̃nzwæ̠ɫ] as very narrow.

(both my emphasis)

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