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I apologize in advance if I phrased my title incorrectly. I consider myself to be well-read, and usually don't have much need for asking how to pronounce something or define it. However, on rare occasions like today, I was reading an article in this forum about how to pronounce the word 'midwifery', and the following was shown:

midwifery [ˈmɪdˌwɪfərɪ]

Well, granted, I know how to pronounce 'midwifery' (as an American would), but the bit inside the brackets is confusing to me. Granted, I'm guessing that it is meant to show how to pronounce the word, and what syllable to put stress on, but just because I've guessed that doesn't mean that I understand the terminology. Where can I learn how to 'read' what's inside those brackets properly? I've tried googling it, but because I don't know what those terms are called, I don't even know what to search for. For example, if you don't know the word ETYMOLOGY, trying to describe it clearly in Google search can be long and tedious instead of using the single word.

For instance, in the example I gave,

[ˈmɪdˌwɪfərɪ]

what does the very first character ˈ mean? How do you know how to pronounce the ɪ character (as "I" like "I'm here" or "I" like "It's here")?

Where can I find (web URLs to visit, or books to read) about how to properly interpret things like what's inside the brackets?

Thanks in advance for any help!

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I'm putting this addendum here because I'm a bit stumped... but on ANOTHER problem. Namely, how do I select one of your answers? (although several of you have great answers, it's hard to just pick one). The examples I find about how to do it indicate that I should click on the check-mark (√) below to the left of each answer. But... I see NO check-marks anywhere on this page. The only thing I see to the left of each of your answers is either an grey upward pointing triangle allowing the addition of a comment, or a grey flag so I can flag an answer for a problem. Maybe I don't see it since this is the very first question I've ever asked here (unlikely) or maybe I need to wait longer before selecting an answer??? If it matters, I've tried viewing this page in both Firefox and Chrome and no difference. I'll come back here in a day or two and try again. For the time being, the two best look to be Stuart F and user888379, despite the fact that there were a number of good choices for me. I'll be back before Saturday. (sorry if I'm being stupid here).

P.S. The example of midwifery came from the board here:

Why does the pronunciation of the word "wife" [waif] change in the word "midwifery" [ˈmɪdˌwɪfərɪ]?

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Thanks for BOTH answers, user570286, I have marked up yours as well. 🙂

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    If you look at the help section on on Oxford's Lexico you'll find an explanation. On Merriam-Webster's website you'll find this chart and other documents.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 18 at 16:14
  • Can you give a link to where you found that? There are many standards for writing out pronunciation, and it would help to know the source of that one. it's using some common symbols that you may not be aware of. Frankly that's not at all how I would pronounce the word.
    – Mitch
    Jan 18 at 16:19
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    IPA isn't only India Pale Ale; it also stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. This might also help you in your googling.
    – user888379
    Jan 18 at 16:20
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    @StuartF That seems to me worth promoting to an answer, maybe if you throw in a mention of IPA. Jan 18 at 16:27
  • Many people are in the same situation as you, since Anglophone schools don't teach anything but mythology about English pronunciation. A good resource is J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, which is designed for the autodidact to learn how to use their own phonetics laboratory. Jan 18 at 22:41

1 Answer 1

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That notation is the International Phonetic Alphabet. While I lack a broad view of the available resources for learning it, I can say that I personally started with Wikipedia's help pages on the subject, which list the symbols (linked to the articles on the corresponding sounds) with pronunciation samples and examples of words in which the corresponding sounds appear:

Looking at that page again years later, I see that it concludes with a list of other recommended resources.

Later, I also used the Memrise course “Learn the IPA (Phonetic Alphabet)”. Memrise is a Web and mobile app for memorizing with spaced repetition. That IPA course can be a bit annoying or frustrating because of some ways in which it doesn't really work well with the Memrise platform, but overall I think it can be useful.

Regarding your specific questions about ‘midwifery’:

  • The symbol ˈ means that the following syllable, /mɪd/, is pronounced with the greatest stress among the word's syllables, while ˌ marks the following syllable, /wɪf/, as having a lesser stress (but still more stress than a syllable with neither of these marks).
  • The symbol ɪ represents the sound of the ‘i’ in ‘sit’ (or “it's here”, as you say).

The reason you can't accept the answers of Stuart F and user888379 is that they have provided their answers as comments on your question rather than as ‘answers’ as the website's software understands that term.

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