The International Phonetic Alphabet

Why we need it

For individuals seeking a fundamental grasp of the sounds of English, the International Phonetic Alphabet proves indispensable. English spelling, being non-phonetic, cannot reliably guide pronunciation.


As native English speakers, we tend to guess how to pronounce words and names that we are unfamiliar with based on patterns we recognize. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but in general native English speakers tend to get by using this method.


On the other hand, 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 British and American pronunciation of the word ‘brother’. We can check the phonetic reading for both accents.


The British RP:  /ˈbrʌðə/

The General American: /ˈbrʌðər/


The phonetic reading for British RP does not include the /r/ sound at the end. Without the IPA readings, checking the pronunciation can create frustration and confusion, especially for a non-native speaker of English. 

The 20 Vowel Sounds

Let’s explore the IPA symbols for Received Pronunciation.

In total, there are twenty vowel sounds. These phonemes can be categorised as monophthongs or diphthongs, short or long vowels, and by the position of the tip of the tongue according to the vowel sound chart.


  • 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

In total, there are 24 consonant sounds. They can be categorized as the following:


  • 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.


Now, let’s delve into some essential definitions.


  • A phoneme, the smallest speech unit.
  • A monophthong: a single vowel sound.
  • A diphthong: a blend of two monophthongs, represented by two symbols.
  • Short vowels: brief in nature.
  • Long vowels: lengthened, depicted by two triangles to the right of the symbol.