Today I will divert from the usual subject of my articles and talk about linguistics—phonetic transcription in particular. One of the most important tips I have for fantasy writers is this: the International Phonetic Alphabet is your friend. If you intend to merely invent names for characters or even create an entire language for your world, knowing at least a smattering of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) will prove indispensable. I’m going to write an article on why you should use the IPA when making up words for a fantasy world, but this is not that article.
The IPA is what dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary use to transcribe the pronunciation of words, and this makes it easy to understand the correct way to pronounce any word. In spite of the usefulness and elegance of the International Phonetic Alphabet, however, the Americans don’t use it, and I’m sorry to say that the American equivalent is just plain awful.
Americanist Phonetic Notation
Just a warning: for clarity, I will be using the IPA in this article, so if you’re confused, you can look at the chart here.
A Mess of Diacritics
Unlike the standardized IPA, there are several systems used in the United States, none of which are particularly uniform. The first is “Americanist Phonetic Notation,” which is an unreadable mess of diacritics. The most widely used, however, is the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). It’s what most American dictionaries use—including Webster’s Dictionary—and it’s even worse! I mean… just in case there weren’t enough reasons to stick with the Oxford Dictionary!
The American Heritage Dictionary (of Doom)
The IPA adheres to the principle of one letter to one sound. In other words, it doesn’t represent a single sound with more than one letter, nor a combination of sounds with one letter. It also strives to minimize ambiguity in transcription—within any one language, at least. The AHD, on the other hand, goes out of its way to do the opposite and positively embraces redundancy and ambiguity.
The diphthong that the IPA renders as [ʌɪ] (sometimes linked for clarity as in [ʌ͡ɪ]) is represented in American as \ī\. To represent a diphthong as a single character when you already have the two characters that represent its parts goes against the basic principles of phonetic transcription.
What’s perhaps worse is their transcription of what are called the dental fricatives ([θ] and [ð] in the IPA), which are both rendered as \th\ in the AHD. There is absolutely no way of determining whether it represents the [θ] in “thick” or the [ð] in “this”. Isn’t the whole point of a phonetic alphabet to eliminate such ambiguities? Indeed, what about speakers of other languages, who may well interpret that digraph as merely an aspirated [tʰ]? Another issue with using digraphs in a system of phonetic respelling is that \th\ contains both \t\ and \h\, both of which represent totally distinct sounds even in the AHD. How is one to know whether it is to be read as a digraph or as separate sounds?
To conclude, whereas the International Phonetic Alphabet is elegant, unambiguous, and easy to understand, the many chaotic systems used to transcribe pronunciation in the United States are inferior in every way. That even the most prominent of American dictionaries use these dreadful systems only makes me appreciate the International Phonetic Alphabet and the Oxford English Dictionary all the more.