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?

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    "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. Jan 5, 2014 at 21:54
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    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". Jan 5, 2014 at 22:05
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    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. Jan 5, 2014 at 22:08
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    @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). Jan 5, 2014 at 22:32
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    @Fumble, there are implementations of IPA that work very well for that as well (just look at any pronunciation hint given on Wikipedia, for example—or any Oxford dictionary, for that matter). IPA comes in varying degrees of broad- and fineness, and for dictionary purposes, broad IPA for English would be so much more efficient than Webster Spaghetti. Jan 5, 2014 at 23:59

5 Answers 5


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...

  • Personally, I think it's related to the desire to keep monoglot Americans ignorant of the phonetic values of the Latin alphabet in almost all other languages that use it. :) They don’t want people to be confused that we've shifted everything during the Great Vowel Shift so that the letters and sounds no longer match up, like the sound /i/ being what they think of as the letter E not I, or the sound /e/ being what they think of as the letter A not E, or that the name of the letter I is pronounced /ai/ etc. It's so scrambled that this keeps monoglots from pronouncing other languages correctly.
    – tchrist
    Jul 30, 2018 at 0:02
  • Whoever came up with that "infelicitous" reasoning seemed to deliberate ignore the fact that the long s, a variant of a regular s, predates printed books and is perfectly legible. The esh is obviously long, and if you can't distinguish between a long character with both an ascender and a descender and a short one with none, the problem lies in either bad handwriting or bad eyesight, not the character itself, which means that it can be easily argued that adding awkward diacritics to smaller set of English letters doesn't improve legibility. Apr 17, 2022 at 5:15

People who say IPA system does not work are just liars. This is not true. I have been teaching English as a Foreign Language for more than 40 years and the improvements in pronunciation are just amazing from the first basic lesson. What English students need are real tools to help them learn by themselves. The International Phonetic Alphabet works and it is easy to learn.


Mike Pollard is correct regarding the impracticality of the IPA for the overwhelming majority of monoglot speakers of American English. Unlike polyglot Europeans, most Americans are quite content using the simpler systems of phonetic symbols presented in American dictionaries and would not benefit from the investment of time necessary to familiarize themselves with the significantly greater complexity of the IPA. For better or worse, it’s the nature of the dominant culture.

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    In my experience, most Americans don't bother learning any system of phonetic symbols, whether IPA or otherwise. And I don't think the non-IPA systems are simpler: you don't have to learn the entire IPA to learn the subset of it that is used to transcribe English.
    – herisson
    Apr 23, 2019 at 19:54
  • As @herisson, I too disagree. All dictionaries I have ever used include an explanation of all the IPA symbols used with example words, e.g.: ‘/ʌː/ as in father, /ɔː/ as in law.’ Explanations are in other words done with words that are well-known even to those who are beginners in the language. There is a reason we learnt IPA for English in primary school; it is a ‘real tool[] to help [us] learn by [our]selves. The International Phonetic Alphabet works and it is easy to learn.’ as mentioned by Enrique Guerra above.
    – Canned Man
    Jul 23, 2020 at 18:01
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    Look up one word in Merriam-Webster and explain exactly how that jumble of letters with awkward diacritics belongs to a system any "simpler" than IPA. You'll still have to learn the arbitrary rules devised by the dictionary makers, and worse of all, there's no common standard for all dictionaries to follow. Apr 17, 2022 at 4:52

For those who prefer the IPA there is the Merriam-Webster Advanced Learner's Dictionary and the online Britannica Dictionary. For those who don't want the IPA there are the other M-W dictionaries and other American dictionaries. Now, some will argue that the Americans are being perverse, but actually the Americans did some of the earliest major work in this field(Whitney, Hanna and many more) and have always taught the IPA at universities. Another argument is that some will try to over-project the European viewpoint, as for example the treatment of the r-coloured vowels as a contrast or extension to the RP non-rhotic notation.

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    – Community Bot
    Aug 25, 2022 at 0:34

Likely because IPA is a joke. In a standard non translation dictionary (i.e. not french to english) the native english speaker is using the book to conferm spelling and look up meaning. Accent is not a consideration. While written english is non phonetic compared with alphabets that use visual accents, IPA is in itself a separate language that would require lessons to decipher. Basically, IPA is in no way, shape, or form helpful to people looking for phonetic pronunciation. It's more helpful to break down words into segments and liken the sections to generally understood words or sounds. Best example of this is the Wikipedia entry on "Roosevelt". The IPA would be unhelpful to 99% of people looking it up. Far easier would be "rose-a-velt".

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    If pronunciation is "not a consideration" for native English speakers when they look up words in dictionaries, why do dictionaries include pronunciation at all? IPA is in no way "a separate language." It's a separate alphabet, and it's no harder to learn than most foreign alphabets. It's certainly useful for people if the pronunciation resource they're using transcribes words in IPA. Many dictionaries do so, such as the Oxford English Dictionary.
    – herisson
    Apr 29, 2016 at 15:44
  • BTW, Mike, do you happen to be American, by any chance?
    – Sz.
    Apr 17, 2020 at 3:52
  • "IPA is in itself a separate language that would require lessons to decipher" It's a joke because you have to learn it? Are you kidding me? This entire answer is a complete joke, and it's infuriating that it shows up among my Google search results, instead of the more informed answers above. Who the hell are you to claim that "99% of people" are so stupid that they can only parse the anglocentric "phonetic" spelling "rose-a-velt"? How exactly is it "far easier"? It can just easily be read as "rose AY velt" instead. I implore you, never give an answer again, for the sake of the human race. Apr 17, 2022 at 4:42

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