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Phonetic rendering of names - Explanation

What is IPA?

IPA stands for "International Phonetic Alphabet" (or "Association"), and it was created in an attempt to devise an alphabet that could cover the rich variety of sounds humans use in their speech.

Due to the evolution of spoken language there are few languages whose written form unambiguously shows how to pronounce a word. English is particularly bad in this, for example "tear" is pronounced differently in "tear (teardrop)" and "to tear apart". Alphabets are rarely strictly phonetic, but IPA was designed to be just this: one letter for each sound.

It was first established in 1896 by an international organisation of phoneticians and is still being revised. The alphabet, with over 100 standardised letters, is mainly based on the latin alphabet, but with many additions, made by adding greek letters, adding diacritics, turning letters upside down, left to right and many other small modifications (hooks, tails, etc).

Probably everybody has come across IPA in dictionaries, where it is used to show the pronunciation, and it is used by all phoneticians and linguists. It is an accepted standard in widespread use with freely usable computer fonts available.

Using IPA for names

So why does MG use a phonetic alphabet when it is supposed to be an easily recognizable visual glyph-language that is independant of pronunciation? While it would be simple to create easily recognizable glyphs of major cities that have famous landmarks, or for famous people that are constantly in the news, this is not possible for places or people that are not famous. And unlike Chinese, where people might have names such as "Universe" or "Cloud" and the capital is called "Northern Capital", names for example in English rarely have such an explicit meaning, or they have lost this meaning over the centuries. Most names in most languages are purely phonetic. An etymologist might know the origin of the name "London", but in everyday life the word and its sound stands for nothing but the city.

Like all glyphs in MG each name will be linked to an explanation that translates the name into other languages. So for example the glyph showing the IPA letters "dɔʏtʃlant" would be linked to an explanation page containing "Deutschland" in German, "Germany" in English", "德国" in simplified Chinese, "Allemagne" in French, etc.

The IPA name always represents the standard pronunciation of the name in the local language, following the unbiased and non-centric approach of the whole language.

It is normally possible to make a good guess at the meaning even if one doesn't know the exact pronunciation of each character. For example "r", "ɹ"ˌ "ɾ"ˌ "ɽ"ˌ "ɼ"ˌ "ʀ" and "ʁ" will all sound more or less similar to the English "r". The same goes for "a", "ɑ"ˌ "æ" or "n", "ɴ"ˌ "ŋ"ˌ "ɲ". For recognizing a name, this is often enough.

Famous names of cities often have slightly different pronunciations in different languages (such as Köln/Cologne and München/Munich in German/English), but because they are well-known it is likely that the local pronuncation is also well-known. And the less known a name is, the more likely it is that the "translated" name is identical to the one in the local language.

Nevertheless it is important to learn some basic IPA for more efficient reading, and for the cases when a text is not linked, such as in printed form.
In the case of writing a text in MG, the input will be made in the local language, and the IPA form is fetched from the database.

Tonal languages

There also exists a method for marking tones in IPA (tonebars), for use in tonal languages such as Chinese but there is no good support in unicode for contour tones (variations of tone levels). For MG we hence devised our own system of marking the tones above the word, making better use of the available glyph space.

As usual, five tone levels are distinguished, and the system is intuitively understandable, though of course nevertheless difficult to pronounce for the untrained speaker.

An example for tonal presentation in MG: the capital of China, Beijing, with the two toneboxes identifying the Mandarin tones 3 "dipping" and 1 "high"

A nice introduction to tones (with sound samples) can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/jinzhang/www/pinyin/tones/index.html

IPA tutorials

There are several good tutorials on IPA freely available on the internet. For example see: http://www.voices.com/articles/languages-accents-and-dialects/international-phonetic-alphabet.html.
A particularly useful chart with sound samples can be found at: http://www.phonetics.ucla.edu/course/chapter1/chapter1.html.

Problems and Solutions


 
 
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First appearance: Wed Dec 4 18:15:56 GMT 2002 - | - Last modified: Mon Jul 20 23:32:30 CEST 2009
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