Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are there any historical or political reasons for the rather consistent refusal of the International Phonetic Alphabet on the part of American academics?

Did Mark Twain's home-made-English-spelling-centred phonetic rendering of regional pronunciations set a trend?

share|improve this question
"Americans academics" do not reject the IPA - I learned it in college in the 1960s. Most American dictionary publishers don't employ it, probably because few linguists buy mass-market dictionaries, and everybody else is perfectly happy with what they've got. –  StoneyB Jan 5 at 21:54
Precisely. Webster's pre-steampunk notation system is the one that nobody ever understands or learns, because it makes no sense. Therefore it's perfect for an American dictionary. Merriam-Webster has published Kenyon & Knott's Pronouncing Dictionary of American English, with excellent IPA-based phonemic notation, since the 1950s, but they continue to not use it anywhere else, for fear Americans might learn something. It's like the metric system; "not invented here". –  John Lawler Jan 5 at 22:05
Therefore the rule I suggest to any English learner: DON'T buy a monolingual English dictionary published in the United States. Make sure that the English pronunciations are in IPA; if you see anything else, don't trust the book. –  John Lawler Jan 5 at 22:08
@John, StoneyB: I'm comparatively ignorant in such matters, obviously. But surely if IPA is an international symbol set, it must include many sounds that don't even occur in spoken AmE? And perhaps others where different speakers do indeed pronounce certain sounds differently because of regional accents, but those differences are consistent, and known to the natives. So in the context of a "pronouncing dictionary", they only need to know this is sound X (unlike you, John, they don't usually need to know about dialectal variations in how "sound X" is actually articulated). –  FumbleFingers Jan 5 at 22:32
It's the same reason that nobody uses Dvorak keyboards. They're more efficient, but you'd have to learn a new system and as long as all the keyboards are qwerty, there's no point. –  Peter Shor Jan 5 at 22:33

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I don't know, but here's an interesting quote from Abercrombie's book Fifty years in Phonetics.

In America phonetic notation has had a curious history. Bloomfield used IPA notation in his early book An Introduction to the Study of Language, 1914, and in the English edition of his more famous Language, 1935. But since then, a strange hostility has been shown by many American linguists to IPA notation, especially to certain of its symbols.

An interesting and significant story was once told by Carl Voegelin during a symposium held in New York in 1952 on the present state of anthropology. He told how, at the beginning of the 1930s, he was being taught phonetics by, as he put it, a "pleasant Dane", who made him use the IPA symbol for sh in ship, among others. Some while later he used those symbols in some work on an American Indian language he had done for Sapir. When Sapir saw the work he "simply blew up", Voegelin said, and demanded that in future Voegelin should use 's wedge' (as š was called), instead of the IPA symbol.

When I used this quote in my dissertation, I got the following interesting response from a committee member:

Sapir probably knew how hard it is to see the difference between esh and s-wedge in handwriting. This is the main reason Howie Aronson cited in a class ... relating it to the tradition of doing fieldwork versus creating nice printed books. Like other IPA propagandists, Abercrombie seems to want to link this to American exceptionalism, infelicitously conflating "Americanist" with "American". Fortunately, you don't use "esh" but, rather, curly-tailed c...

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.