Dictionaries often have "pronunciation spelling" listed next to the word. For example:

port·man·teau - noun \pȯrt-ˈman-(ˌ)tō\

What is the name for this alphabet/system? Is it a universal system, or does every language have their own "version" of it?

  • I realize I could easily find the answer the second question if I only I knew what the system is named, and could therefore search for it.
    – IQAndreas
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:36
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    I don't know if this will help, but in AmE, there are multiple similar traditional respelling systems used by dictionaries. The guides used to be printed on the bottom of every other page. Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:46
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    BTW, that's not what is usually meant by "pronunciation spelling."
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:48
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    @Kris Thanks for pointing that out. According to the article you linked to "Pronunciation respelling should not be confused with pronunciation spelling, which is an ad hoc spelling of a word that has no standard spelling. Most of these are nonce coinages, but some have become standardized, e.g. 'gonna' to represent the pronunciation of 'going to', as in 'I'm gonna catch you.'"
    – IQAndreas
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:58
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    The very short answer to this question is "it's called IPA".
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 7:29

3 Answers 3


There is a universal (more or less) system for recording human speech sounds.
It's called the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA.   (Note: That's Phonetic, not Phonemic.)
This contains all the sounds that occur in any human language.
Naturally, no human language has all of them.
No human language even has most of them.

Individual languages use only some of those sounds, and representations of words in individual languages use a special selection of these symbols -- different for every language -- called "phonemes". Usually the symbols used are taken from the IPA, but they represent only the sounds and their distribution and pronunciation in that language.

For instance, this is the American English phonemic system, from Kenyon and Knott.

English dictionaries published in the United States normally don't use phonemic pronunciation, preferring the system invented by Noah Webster, based on spelling instead of phonetics. Webster was a spelling reformer, and believed that the traditional English spelling could be used to indicate phonetics. He was wrong, but that hasn't influenced American dictionaries.

English dictionaries published elsewhere, or bilingual dictionaries, or dictionaries intended for language learners, normally do use standard phonemic transcription. If you have a bilingual dictionary, look at the pronunciations in the English part; they will normally use either the system of Kenyon and Knott (American) or a system of RP (UK), which has some differences from American. This is because English speakers normally pay no attention to the pronunciations in the English part, but English learners do, and they need accuracy.

The example cited


is the style used by Merriam-Webster, based on the original nonphonemic transcription.
In Kenyon and Knott's system, it would be


and in RP it would be


Regardless of what the Wikipedia entry above says, the M-W system is not phonemic.

  • Why would it be any different in RP than in Kenyon and Knott’s system? Surely the phonemes in this word are the same? Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 17:28
  • Not quite. For one thing, RP has an extra low back vowel that American English lacks. Also, the British tradition (which largely predates the IPA) has been to use either long vowel marking (e.g, /e:/) or diphthongs (e.g, /eɪ/) for tense vowels (e.g, [e] as in pay) to contrast with lax ones (e.g, [ɛ] in let), where K&K use IPA vowel symbols for both: /pe/, /lɛt/. And then there's rhoticity, which is conspicuously lacking in RP, and indicated by central diphthongs: RP /foə/, USA /for/ four, for, fore. Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 17:37
  • I get the difference in how the tense/lax distinction is traditionally denoted—but why would ‘port’ not be /port/ in both? The extra low back vowel [ɒ] is, as far as I know, always the outcome in RP of /or/, so it seems artificial to write /oə/ instead (even more so in a word like ‘pore’, where the phonemic /r/ is audible intervocalically). Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 17:43
  • Well, I agree, the phoneme is /r/ in both cases, but the set of allophones is almost completely different. I'd do it that way, but Daniel Jones got theə fə:st. Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 17:48
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    @JoeBlow: No apologies necessary. The question as posed is often nonsensical and I feel no necessity to pay attention to nonsense. I only answer the questions I see as having interesting answers. Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 15:47

Pronunciation Respelling -- "non-phonemic" or "newspaper" systems

Pronunciation respelling is a notation used to convey the pronunciation of words, in a language, such as English, which does not have a phonemic orthography. … "non-phonemic" or "newspaper" systems, commonly used in newspapers and other non-technical writings, avoid diacritics and literally "respell" words making use of well-known English words and spelling conventions, even though the resulting system may not have a one-to-one mapping between symbols and sounds.

As an example, the last name of actor Jake Gyllenhaal, written ˈdʒɪlənhɔːl in the IPA, might be written jĭl′·ən·hôl or JIL-ən-hawl in a phonemic system, and Jill-in-hall in a non-phonemic system.

  • Why the downvote? That was exactly what I was looking for (and in a few minutes I can accept the answer).
    – IQAndreas
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:54
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    I'm not the downvoter, but -- you seem to have selected the wrong passage from that article. The OP is asking about what the article calls "'phonemic' systems", not what it calls "'non-phonemic' or 'newspaper' systems".
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:55
  • @ruakh What makes you think so? Can you clarify?
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 6:57
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    @Kris: Sorry, it's just too explicit; I can't clarify it any further. (Maybe you missed or misread a word somewhere?) The question explicitly says that it's talking about dictionaries, and the article explicitly says that "phonemic" systems are what are found in dictionaries.
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 18:57
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    I was very pleased to learn that this is called "newspaper system" or "pronunciation respelling", thanks!!
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 7:28

I think you're looking for the word "transliteration". Similar to Pinyin which in Chinese means to spell out a sound....or some such....good luck.

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