Americanist phonetic notation: Wikis


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Americanist phonetic notation
Type Alphabet
Spoken languages Reserved for phonetic transcription of any language
Time period 1880s to the present
Parent systems
Latin alphabet
  • Americanist phonetic notation
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.

Americanist phonetic notation (variously called [North] American[ist] Phonetic Alphabet, or APA) is a system of phonetic notation originally developed by European and American anthropologists and language scientists (students of Neo-grammarians) for the phonetic and phonemic transcription of Native American and European languages. However, the system is generally used for transcribing any language.

The Americanist symbols are traditionally found in linguistic writings by American linguists. Certain Americanist symbols have been used as nonstandard variants of IPA symbols in certain transcriptions.



John Wesley Powell used an early set of phonetic symbols in his publications (particularly Powell 1880) on American language families, although the choice of symbols had its origins in work by other phoneticians and American writers (e.g., Pickering 1820; Cass 1821a, 1821b; Hale 1846; Lepsius 1855, 1863; Gibbs 1861; and Powell 1877). The influential anthropologist, Franz Boas used a somewhat different set of symbols (Boas 1911). Boas' alphabet was greatly expanded upon with the publication of American Anthropological Society (1916). This alphabet was modified and discussed in articles in Bloomfield & Bolling (1927) and Herzog et al. (1934). The Americanist notation may be seen in the journals, American Anthropologist, International Journal of American Linguistics, and Language. Useful sources explaining the symbols and/or with comparisons of the alphabets used at different times are Campbell (1997:xii-xiii), Goddard (1996:10-16), Langacker (1972:xiii-vi), Mithun (1999:xiii-xv), and Odden (2005).

It is often useful to compare the Americanist tradition with another widespread tradition, International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Unlike the IPA, Americanist phonetic notation does not require a strict harmony among character styles: letters from the Greek and Roman alphabets are used side-by-side. Another contrasting feature is that the Americanist tradition relies heavily on diacritics where the IPA, which reserves diacritics for specific uses, relies on newly created Greek and Roman letters with character shape modifications. The reason for these differences is the result of a different philosophy. The Americanist linguists were interested in a phonetic notation that could be easily created from typefaces of existing orthographies. This was seen as more practical and more cost-efficient, as many of the characters chosen already existed in Greek and East European orthographies.

Abercrombie (1991:44-45) recounts the following concerning the Americanist tradition:

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.

I have no doubt that the "pleasant Dane" was H. J. Uldall, one of Jones's most brilliant students, who was later to become one of the founders of glossematics, with Louis Hjelmslev. Uldall did a great deal of research into Californian languages, especially into Maidu or Nisenan. Most of the texts he collected were not published during his lifetime. It is ironic that when they were published, posthumously, by the University of California Press, the texts were "reorthographised", as the editor's introduction put it: the IPA symbols Uldall had used were removed and replaced by others.

What is strange is that the IPA symbols seem so obviously preferable to the Americanist alternatives, the ‘long s’ to the ‘s wedge’, for example. As Jones often pointed out, in connected texts, for the sake of legibility diacritics should be avoided as far as possible. Many Americanist texts give the impression of being overloaded with diacritics.

One may wonder why there should be such a hostility in America to IPA notation. I venture to suggest a reason for this apparently irrational attitude. The hostility derives ultimately from the existence, in most American universities, of Speech Departments, which we do not have in Britain. Speech Departments tend to be well-endowed, large, and powerful. In linguistic and phonetic matters they have a reputation for being predominantly prescriptive, and tend to be considered by some therefore to be not very scholarly. In their publications and periodicals the notation they use, when writing of pronunciation, is that of the IPA. My belief is that the last thing a member of an American Linguistics Department wants is to be mistaken for a member of a Speech Department; but if he were to use IPA notation in his writings he would certainly lay himself open to the suspicion that he was.



Below is a generalized chart of phonetic symbols used by linguists of the Americanist tradition for transcribing consonant sounds.

  Bilabial Labio-dental Dental Alveolar Retroflex Alveo-palatal Palatal
Velar Uvular
Pharyngeal (faucal) Laryngeal
Stop (oral) plain voiceless p   t k q    
voiced b   d g ġ    
glottalized voiceless (ejective)   t̪̕ ṭ̕ t̯̕     ʔ
voiced (imploded)           ġ̕    
Affricate central voiceless   pf tθ c č̣ č   ̣    
voiced   bv dð ʒ ǯ̣ ǯ   gγ ġγ̇    
glottalized     θ   č̓          
lateral voiceless       ƛ              
voiced       λ              
glottalized       ƛ̕              
Fricative central voiceless φ f θ s š x h
voiced β v ð z ž γ̑ γ γ̇ ʕ  
lateral voiceless     ł                
glottalized     ł̕                
Nasal voiceless M   N   Ñ        
voiced m ɱ n ñ ŋ̑ ŋ ŋ̇    
glottalized           ŋ̓ ŋ̇̕    
Liquid rhotic plain       r       ʀ    
lateral plain     l   ʟ      
glide plain w           y        
glottalized w’           y’        


  • Among the dental fricatives, [θ] and [ð] are slit fricatives while [s̪] and [z̪] are grooved fricatives.

Rhotics table

Most languages only have one phonemic rhotic consonant (only about 18% of the world's languages have more than one rhotic). As a result, rhotic consonants are generally transcribed with the < r > character. This usage is common practice in Americanist and also other notational traditions (such as the IPA). This lack of detail, although economical and phonologically sound, requires a more careful reading of a given language's phonological description to determine the precise phonetics. A list of rhotics is given below.

RHOTICS Dental Alveolar Retroflex Uvular
Tap r
Fricative (spirant) ř
Frictionless spirant

Alternate symbols

There are many alternate symbols seen in Americanist transcription. Below are some equivalent symbols matched with the symbols shown in the consonant chart above.

  •   j   =   ʒ
  •   ǰ   =   ǯ
  •   ƚ   =   ł
  •   ɸ   =   φ
  •   G   =   ġ
  •   χ   =  
  •   ʸ   =   ̯ ̯      (e.g., kʸ = )

In addition, many researchers use the x-hacek (x̌) for the voiceless uvular fricative. The use of the standard IPA belted-l (/ɬ/) for the voiceless lateral fricative is becoming increasingly common.


Vowels and glides.

  Front Central Back
spread rounded spread rounded spread rounded
High glide y   ÿ w
tense i ü ɨ ʉ ï u
lax I Ü   Ï U
Mid tense e ö ə ë o
lax ɛ ɔ̈ ʌ ɛ̈ ɔ
Low æ a ɑ ɒ


  • Voiceless vocalics can be transcribed with capital letters, eg. [W] = voiceless [w], [A] = voiceless [a].


Diacritics are widely used in Americanist notation. Unlike the IPA, which seeks to use as few diacritics as possible, the Americanist notation uses a narrow set of symbols and then relies on diacritics to indicate a sound's phonetic value.

Historical charts of 1916

The following chart appeared in American Anthropological Society (1916).

  Stops Spirants Affricates Nasals Laterals Lateral Affricates Rolled Consonants
Surd Sonant Intermed. Aspir. Glot-
Surd Sonant Glot. Surd Sonant Glot. Surd Sonant Surd Sonant Glot. Surd Sonant Glot. Surd Sonant Glot.
pw bw ʙw pw w , pw! ƕ w ƕ! bw pƕ! w mw                  
p b ʙ p‛ p̓ , p! φ β φ! pφ! m                  
          f v f! pf bv pf!                      
          θ ϑ θ! tθ!                      
ᴅ̯ t̯‛ t̯̓ , t̯! s̯! t̯s d̯z t̯s! ɴ̯ ƚ̯ , ʟ̯ ƚ̯! t̯ƚ d̯l t̯ƚ! ʀ̯ ʀ̯!
t d t‛ t̓ , t! s z s! ts dz ts! ɴ n ƚ , ʟ l ƚ! dl tƚ! ʀ r ʀ!
Cerebral ᴅ̣ ṭ‛ ṭ̓ , ṭ! ṣ! ṭs ḍz ṭs! ɴ̣ ƚ̣ , ʟ̣ ƚ̣! ṭƚ ḍl ṭƚ! ʀ̣ ʀ̣!
τ̯ δ̯ Δ̯ τ̯‛ τ̯̓ , τ̯! σ̯ ζ̯ σ̯! τ̯σ δ̯ζ τ̯σ! ν̯ ν̯ Λ̯ λ̯ Λ̯! τ̯Λ δ̯Λ τ̯Λ!      
Dorsal τ δ Δ τ‛ τ̓ , τ! σ ζ σ! τσ δζ τσ!
Λ λ Λ! τΛ δΛ τΛ!      
τ̣ δ̣ Δ̣ τ̣‛ τ̣̓ , τ̣! σ̣ ζ̣ σ̣! τ̣σ δ̣ζ τ̣σ!
Λ̣ λ̣ Λ̣! τ̣Λ δ̣Λ τ̣Λ!      
y) y) (Δy) y‛) (τ̓ , τy!) cy jy cy! tcy djy tcy! (
y) y) y!) (τΛy) (δΛy) (τΛy!)      
(ty) (dy) (ᴅy) (ty‛) (t̓ , ty!) c j c! tc dj tc! y) (ny) y , ʟy) (ly) y!) (tƚy) (dly) (tƚy!)      
(ṭy) (ḍy) (ᴅ̣y) (ṭy‛) (ṭ̓ , ṭy!) c̣! ṭc ḍj ṭc! (ɴ̣y) (ṇy) (ƚ̣y , ʟ̣y) (ḷy) (ƚ̣y!) (ṭƚy) (ḍly) (ṭƚy!)      
ɢ̯ k̯‛ k̯̓ , k̯! γ̯ x̯! k̯x g̯γ k̯x! Ŋ̯ ŋ̯       k̯ƚ g̯l k̯ƚ! Ρ̯ ρ̯ ρ̯!
k g ɢ k‛ k̓ , k! x γ x! kx kx! Ŋ ŋ       gl kƚ! Ρ ρ ρ!
Back palatal,
ḳ (q) ɢ̣ ḳ‛ ḳ̓ , ḳ! γ̣ x̣! ḳx g̣γ ḳx! Ŋ̣ ŋ̣       ḳƚ g̣l ḳƚ! Ρ̣ ρ̣ ρ̣!
Glottal       ‛ , h (any
Laryngeal ’̣     ’̣   (any vowel with laryngeal resonance)   ’̣ḥ                          


  • surd = voiceless; sonant = voiced; intermed. = partially voiced
  • In the glottalized stop column, the phonetic symbol appearing on the left side (which is a consonant plus an overhead single quotation mark) represents a weakly glottalized stop (i.e. weakly ejective). The symbol on the right side is strongly glottalized (i.e. it is articulated very forcefully). Example: [k̓] = weakly glottalized; [k!] = strongly glottalized.
  • "Laryngeal" refers to either pharyngeal or epiglottal.

See also

External links


  • Abercrombie, David. (1991). Daniel Jones's teaching. In D. Abercrombie, Fifty years in phonetics: Selected papers (pp. 37-47). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (Original work published 1985 in V. A. Fromkin (Ed.), Phonetic linguistics: Essays in honor of Peter Ladefoged, Orlando, Academic Press, Inc.).
  • Albright, Robert W. (1958). The International Phonetic Alphabet: Its background and development. International journal of American linguistics (Vol. 24, No. 1, Part 3); Indiana University research center in anthropology, folklore, and linguistics, publ. 7. Baltimore. (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, 1953).
  • American Anthropological Society [Boas, Franz; Goddard, Pliny E.; Sapir, Edward; & Kroeber, Alfred L.]. (1916). Phonetic transcription of Indian languages: Report of committee of American Anthropological Association. Smithsonian miscellaneous collections (Vol. 66, No. 6). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution (American Anthropological Society).
  • Bloomfield, Leonard; & Bolling George Melville. (1927). What symbols shall we use? Language, 3 (2), 123-129.
  • Boas, Franz. (1911). Introduction. In F. Boas (Ed.), Handbook of American Indian languages (pp. 5-83). Bureau of American Ethnology bulletin (No. 40). Washington. (Reprinted 1966).
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Clark, John; & Yallop, Colin. (1995). An introduction to phonetics and phonology (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19452-5.
  • Odden, David. (2005). Introducing phonology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82669-1 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-53404-6 (pbk).
  • Goddard, Ives. (1996). Introduction. In I. Goddard (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Languages (Vol. 17, pp. 1-16). (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Herzog, George; Newman, Stanley S.; Sapir, Edward; Swadesh, Mary Haas; Swadesh, Morris; Voegelin, Charles F. (1934). Some orthographic recommendations. American Anthropologist, 36 (4), 629-631.
  • Hill, Kenneth C. (1988). [Review of Phonetic symbol guide by G. K. Pullum & W. Ladusaw]. Language, 64 (1), 143-144.
  • International Phonetic Association. (1949). The principles of the International Phonetic Association, being a description of the International Phonetic Alphabet and the manner of using it, illustrated by texts in 51 languages. London: University College, Department of Phonetics.
  • Kemp, J. Alan. (1994). Phonetic transcription: History. In R. E. Asher & J. M. Y. Simpson (Eds.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics (Vol. 6, pp. 3040-3051). Oxford: Pergamon.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. (1972). Fundamentals of linguistic analysis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • MacMahon, Michael K. C. (1996). Phonetic notation. In P. T. Daniels & W. Bright (Ed.), The world's writing systems (pp. 821-846). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Maddieson, Ian. (1984). Patterns of sounds. Cambridge studies in speech science and communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Pike, Kenneth L. (1943). Phonetics: A critical analysis of phonetic theory and a technic for the practical description of sounds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Powell, John W. (1880). Introduction to the Study of Indian languages, with words, phrases, and sentences to be collected (2nd Ed.). Washington: Government Printing Office.
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K.; & Laduslaw, William A. (1986). Phonetic symbol guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-68532-2.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978-present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).

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