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I would like to mark a letter in a syllable with some kind of symbol that denotes that the letter can be dropped. Is there a symbol for that in the phonetic alphabet?

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    Putting the sound in parentheses is common, though I suspect (without having checked) not strictly part of the IPA spec. May 21 at 12:46
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    I suspect that you mean a sound that can be dropped. Please avoid confusing sounds with letters.
    – Colin Fine
    May 21 at 19:19
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    I suspect you haven't fully realized yet that spelling has nothing to do with pronunciation, in English at least. It always comes as something of a shock when you eventually realize it, after all those years of literal education. The name "International Phonetic Alphabet" sounds like it has to do with letters, doesn't it? But it doesn't. All the IPA does is represent individual sounds, as precisely as it can, one by one. Never mind what words they're in, never mind what context they're in, never mind what language they're in. Just the sounds, ma'am; just the sounds.
    – jlawler
    May 21 at 20:04
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    I’m not sure why everyone is so hung up and focused on the word letter in the question. I see no indication that the asker does not understand the difference between spelling and pronunciation. The non-diacritic symbols that make up the IPA are called letters (including in the IPA Handbook), just like the symbols that make up the Roman alphabet are called letters, and these are obviously what’s being asked about. Since dropping a letter from an IPA transcription is equivalent to dropping the sound in pronunciation, I don’t see the need to ‘correct’ one to the other. May 22 at 8:48
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I have some sympathy with those comments. During the course of my phonetics tuition, mainly provided directly by the President of the International Phonetics Association, we'd have been (correction "were") castigated, for referring to IPA symbols as letters. (shrugs) May 22 at 20:43

2 Answers 2

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The IPA doesn't have any notations that relate spelling to pronunciation, thus if [ð] can be spelled <th,dh,d>, IPA takes no note of that fact. It only deals in phonetically-interpretable segments. If some segment is present in an abstract form of a pronunciation such as an underlying form, you could indicate that using slash vs. square brackets, e.g. /ræt/ vs [ræʔ], which can imply deletion as in /pəteto/ vs [pteto].

While it is common in phonological practice to communicate "deletable segment" with parentheses, IPA assigns a different meaning to parentheses (see p. 175 of the handbook): it brackets "indistinguishable utterance". Double parentheses denote "sound obscured". There is no official IPA notation for "can be deleted".

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There is no official IPA symbol for such a (non-)sound. However, language-specific phonemic transcription systems, which borrow symbols from the IPA, often use a superscript symbol for such omissible segments. So, for example, you might see the following transcription for the English word little, which can optionally be said with a schwa in the last syllable, or alternatively with a syllabic [l]:

/lɪtəl/

The problem with this convention, which is the one most often found in dictionaries and so forth, is that uninitiated readers sometimes think that this indicates a 'small' sound.

The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary(LPD), the gold standard of English pronunciation dictionaries, uses this convention. Notice that due to the phonology and phonotactics of the languages concerned, such a convention often implies quite a bit more than it entails.

John Wells, world-renowned phonetician and author of the LPD writes:

The answer to the second question, too, is answered in the printed LPD. For me “əl” is an abbreviatory convention meaning “[l̩] (= syllabic l) or, less likely, [əl]”. Raised letters stand for ‘sounds optionally inserted’. So a syllabic l is one possible unpacking (the most likely one) of superscript schwa plus l. (You can tell it must be syllabic, because the syllables are shown by the spacing and there are no (other) vowels in the syllable.) By writing “ˈʃmaɪkəl” I am indicating “ˈʃmaɪk l̩ or (less likely) ˈʃmaɪk əl”. The raised-letter convention saves space. I do the same thing in words such as fence fents.

[To find the relevant section, scroll down to 'Dictionary Conventions', blog section Wednesday 22 November 2006]

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