There are two things I've noticed:

  1. Every language has only finitely many sounds in it
  2. IPA, which is a notation for representing all possible sounds in all possible languages, has only finitely many symbols in it.

I think I understand why the first is true. I think it's related to the argument that's often made in favour of digital communication over analogue communication. Digital communication is able to correct for noise while analogue is not.

I don't understand why the second point is true though. Why does IPA have only finitely many symbols? Isn't the human voice box capable of making infinitely many different sounds? The shape of the tongue in the mouth can surely be varied continuously, allowing for infinitely many different sounds.

Maybe I'm finding it hard to phrase my question: The question is less about IPA and more about whether what IPA is trying to do is even possible. Is it possible to create a notation for every possible sound in every possible language? Can a language be invented whose sounds cannot be accurately represented using the existing IPA?

  • 1
    The prosaic reason IPA has a finite number of symbols is of course that it’s a man-made thing. Each symbol had to be invented, or more commonly taken from some other writing system already in use, before it existed as part of the IPA. And no man-made simplex can really be infinite outside the realms of mathematics and theoretical entities. Doesn’t matter how many symbols they’d invented, the total number would still be a finite one. There are tons of diacritics which you could (in theory) just keep adding on for an infinite number, of course – but that would just be silly. Aug 31, 2021 at 14:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The question wasn't about IPA as such, but about whether a finite set of symbols would be "enough" in some sense. I acknowledge what you're saying in the last paragraph
    – wlad
    Aug 31, 2021 at 17:54
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The human ear and brain only has a limited ability to distinguish different sounds, just like the human eye can't see details at small enough scales. I thought about this after I asked the question. It got answered pretty quickly
    – wlad
    Aug 31, 2021 at 17:56

1 Answer 1


IPA is not designed for the precise description of phones (the infinite number of "sounds" referred in the question). It is designed to describe any possible phonemic (phonemes are analogous to the digital signals alluded in the question) contrast observed and described in the natural languages of the world. When a new phonemic contrast is discovered, the set of IPA symbols may be increased (it happens form time to time).

Having said this, there are means in IPA (and more of them in extended IPA for disordered speech) that allow a rather narrow transcription of sounds, by adding one or more diacritics to a base IPA symbol. But in practice one always prefers sound recordings or videos as original data.

For the last and curious question: Yes, it is possible to construct languages with sounds not described in IPA, see this question on the conlang stackexchange.

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