The International Phonetic Alphabet

Why we need it

The International Phonetic Alphabet provides us with an accurate representation of the sounds of English. English spelling, being non-phonetic, tends to be unreliable.

As native English speakers, we tend to guess how to pronounce words and names that we are unfamiliar with based on patterns we recognize.  

The International Phonetic Alphabet is an essential tool for non-native English speakers who wish to master the sounds of English. It helps avoid confusion and provides clarity. It can also prove useful for those who wish to learn dialects and accents such as actors and narrators.


Unfamiliar Names

Consider London underground stations like Holborn or Southwark; without local familiarity, pronunciation might elude non-locals.


We can use the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent the pronunciation as follows:




Comparing British & American Pronunciation

Let’s say we want to compare the pronunciation of the word ‘brother’. We can confirm the pronunciation for both General American and RP using the IPA.


RP:  /ˈbrʌðə/

Gen American: /ˈbrʌðər/


RP does not include the rhotic /r/ sound at the end. The IPA readings provide clarity and help avoid confusion which is especially useful for a non-native speakers. 

The 20 Vowel Sounds

The twenty vowel sounds of  British English pronunciation can be categorised as:

  • monophthong vowels or diphthong vowels
  • short vowels or long vowels
  • by the position of the tip of the tongue and the shape of the mouth

The seven short vowel sounds: /æ/, /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /e/, /ɒ/, /ʌ/, /ə/
The five long vowel sounds: /iː/, /ɜː/, /ɔː/, /uː/, /ɑː/
The eight diphthong vowel sounds: /eɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɪə/, /ʊə/, /eə/, /əʊ/, /aʊ/

The 24 Consonant Sounds

The 24 consonant soundsof British English pronunciation can be categorized as follows.


  • The plosives sounds: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/
  • The fricative sounds: /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /h/
  • The affricate sounds: /ʈʃ/, /dʒ/
  • The nasal sounds: /m/, /n/, /ŋ/
  • The lateral & approximant sounds: /r/, /l/, /w/, /j/

The consonant sounds can be further categorized as being voiced or voiceless. For example, the /p/ sound is a voiceless plosive, whereas the /b/ sound is a voiced plosive sound.


  • Phoneme: the smallest speech unit.
  • Monophthong: a single vowel sound.
  • Diphthong: a combination of two monophthongs, represented by two symbols.
  • Short vowels: brief in nature.
  • Long vowels: lengthened, represented by two triangles to the right of the symbol.