Orthography and transcription

Consider the following.

Daniel gave Kathryn a bow

What do you think was actually given? Did Daniel stand tall, half raise his right arm, pass it across his torso, smile at Kathryn, and then bend forward at the waist for a couple of seconds before standing upright again? Or did Daniel hand Kathryn a silk ribbon tied into a decorative knot?

The problem in interpreting the above text is that we are relying solely on standard English writing, or orthography. Clearly, if we just write the word bow, you will not know if the word means ‘to stoop’ or ‘a decorative knot’ (1). The difficulty lies in the fact that there is no one-to-one relationship between the alphabet letters used in writing words and the actual sounds that make up those words when spoken.

In English there are 26 letters in the alphabet but there are around 44 speech sounds. In the case of bow it is the vowel that differs. If the word is used to mean bending or stooping then the vowel, in the spoken word, is the same as that in the words now, and cow. If, however, we mean a decorative knot then a different vowel is spoken, this time it is the same sound as in the words show, low, and know. So, we say that the same orthographic representation can have a different acoustic representation.

Now, consider the following words, all of which contain the alphabet letter ‘a’. How many different sounds does the letter ‘a’ represent?

act   ace   tall   announcer   animal   ale   late   astride   ball

There are actually four different sounds represented by the letter ‘a’ in the above examples:

  1. act and animal
  2. ace, ale and late
  3. tall and ball
  4. announcer, astride and animal

So, we see that the same alphabet letter can represent different spoken sounds.

Similarly, the same sound can be represented by different combinations of alphabet letters. Consider the six different spellings of the one sound ‘sh’ in the following words:

ocean   anxious   condition   fission   fashion   fuchsia

Clearly, then, English orthography is not a satisfactory way of transcribing English speech sounds. What is required is a system that has a direct one-to-one relationship between an actual sound and the symbol used to represent that sound. In addition, it would be helpful if this system were standardized, i.e. accepted and used by a large number of people.

IPA System

One such system, and by far the most popular, is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is a notational system for representing speech sounds in any world language. With this system, there is an unambiguous one-to-one relationship between a speech sound and the written symbol used to represent that sound. So, returning to our example of ‘bow’, if we wished to use the IPA to represent phonemes (the simplest speech sound elements that are used to differentiate between one word and another) then our two options would be:

IPA - to stoop pronounced with the same vowel sound as in the words cow and now, i.e. meaning ‘to stoop’
IPA - a decorative knot pronounced with the same vowel sound as in the words no and sew, i.e. meaning ‘a decorative knot’

Sequences of speech transcribed in IPA are typically enclosed in slash brackets, / /.

IPA chart

The full chart of IPA symbols (2) (download a copy) is complicated and practitioners typically require specialist training in order to use it. Speech therapists are trained in using this system to transcribe speech, whether this is typically developing or disordered speech. The following is a reduced set of symbols, showing the 24 English consonant sounds.

IPA chart of English consonants

 (download a printable copy of the above chart)


  1. There are, of course, several other definitions of the word bow, e.g. the front of a ship, a tool for playing the strings of a cello, a weapon for shooting arrows. However, for the purposes of the current argument it is convenient to ignore these.
  2. IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2005 International Phonetic Association.