July 25, 2004

IPA in the USA

No, I don't mean India Pale Ale, I mean the International Phonetic Alphabet.

A few days ago, I wrote about opera singers using IPA to learn foreign-language lyrics. Several readers have confirmed that IPA is a standard part of the curriculum at music schools. For example, Richard Alderson emailed:

My son, Rich Alderson, sent me your posting. Rich, of course, is the linguist in the family, but he knows that my work as a voice teacher over the years has included use of the IPA.

Thank you for your posting on the LanguageLog blog, correcting the mistaken impression that music schools do not teach the IPA. Of course, applied voice teachers around the world have used the IPA for decades to teach singing diction. For more than fifty years a major advocate for such instruction has been the National Association of Teachers of Singing, and music schools and departments have long included the IPA in their applied curricula.

Why the system has not caught on with the general public is anyone's guess.

I've always thought that the problem was the educational establishment, not the general public. But this does raise an interesting point -- maybe we should bypass the schools and look for solutions from religion, government and popular culture. Some possible futures, looking past the opera demographic:

There's a new spiritual discipline based on contemplating the mystic relationship between signals and symbols. Madonna gets tattooed with a spectrogram of the syllable , annotated in IPA as [ɛɔm] .

Some hiphop artists decide to print their lyrics in IPA. English orthography doesn't fit anyhow. IPA is the raw way to write.

Brewers are persuaded that their IPA needs to be labelled with IPA. The fashion spreads to other categories of adult beverage. Congress passes a law making it a felony to teach the IPA to anyone under the age of 21, with the result that every 17-year-old in the country becomes an expert within a year.

Fear Factor adds an event requiring one partner to provide an IPA transcription of the non-lexical vocalizations produced during the next Dumpster Diving episode, while the other partner's performance from the transcription is compared against the original recording, to the amusement of the studio audience.

1337-speak is over -- the next generation of hackers leaves messages in IPA:    [ju hæv bɪn ound dʉdz]

Well, none of these things are likely to happen. But it's still worth thinking about how to create IPA buzz on the street. Maybe we should start with opera fans...


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 25, 2004 08:07 PM