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[Square brackets]
Indicate a unit of exact phonetic pronunciation – a phone. Each symbol in [square brackets] has a precise sound, irrespective of language, so that [k] is always a velar voiceless stop, the sound written ‹k› in ‹sky›, or ‹c› in ‹scam›. Symbols inside these brackets are typically in IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet.
/Slash brackets/
Symbols inside /slash brackets/ are abstract, they represent a phoneme. A phoneme represents a sound or group of sounds that the language treats as one. In many dialects of English, the phoneme /l/ can be pronounced [l] at the beginning of a syllable: as in ‹listen›, and [ɫ] or [ʟ] at the end of a syllable: like ‹call›. Notice how each /l/ sound uses quite different tongue position. In some languages – Albanian for example – [l] and [ʟ] are distinct phonemes. Symbols inside these brackets may be either in IPA or that language’s phonological standard: e.g. [j] is often written /y/ for English.
‹Angle brackets›
Words or letters inside ‹angle brackets› are graphemes, or letters shown as the orthography writes them. As proper angle brackets are missing in most fonts, I typically use ‹single guillemets› . Compare the following English examples: ['pʰɐpi] ~ /ppɪ/ ~ ‹puppy›
“Quotation marks”
Sometimes on this site and in other linguistic works, “double quotes” are used to specify a certain glyph or group of glyphs. There is no standard applied here, and the context should make it clear what the “quotes” are representing.


a – aa
In the vowel section of the sound charts, there may be two vowels per box: something like a – aa, a – ā or a – a:. In most of these cases, the first vowel is assumed to be short, and the second vowel long. Note that the terms short and long are quantitative, meaning that the first vowel is has a short duration, whereas the second takes longer to say. In some cases, there may also be some qualitative difference, so that short a may sound like the vowel in “cut”, and the long a like “father”. Vowel qualities can change so much from dialect to dialect, person to person, or word to word, that it is virtually impossible for me to give a one to one correspondance between the written vowel and the phonetic pronunciation.

Diacritics (Accents)

In most North American Roman Orthographies, there seems to be some variation in how ejectives are written, either with the apostrophe before and/or after the consonant, e.g. ‹’m› ‹k’›, or with the apostrophe directly atop the consonant ‹m̓› ‹k̓›. On this site, where there is ambiguity the latter convention will be used, as personal preference. Placing the diacritic directly above the consonant makes a single character, which can be easier to sort in some software, and cannot be confused with consonant + ’. For example, ‹k̓› is a single sound, while ‹k’› could be two: /k/ and /’/. Please see the page on Apostrophes in the Typography section for more information.


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Last Update: August 22, 2008