Americanist phonetic notation

Americanist phonetic notation
Languages Reserved for phonetic transcription of any language
Time period
1880s to the present
Parent systems
Latin alphabet, augmented by Greek
  • Americanist phonetic notation

Americanist phonetic notation, also known as the North American Phonetic Alphabet or NAPA, is a system of phonetic notation originally developed by European and American anthropologists and language scientists (students of Neogrammarians) for the phonetic and phonemic transcription of indigenous languages of the Americas and for languages of Europe. It is still commonly used by linguists working on, among others, Slavic, Uralic, Semitic languages and for the languages of the Caucasus and of India (however, Uralists commonly use a variant known as the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet). The term "Americanist phonetic alphabet" is misleading because it has always been widely used outside the Americas. For example, a version of it is the standard for the transcription of Arabic in articles published in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, the journal of the German Oriental Society.

Certain symbols in NAPA have been used as obsolete and nonstandard symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet in certain transcriptions.


John Wesley Powell used an early set of phonetic symbols in his publications (particularly Powell 1880) on American language families, although he chose symbols which had their 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). In 1916, a publication by the American Anthropological Society greatly expanded upon Boas's alphabet. This same alphabet was discussed and modified in articles by 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, some 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, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Unlike the IPA, Americanist phonetic notation does not require a strict harmony among character styles: letters from the Greek and Latin alphabets are used side-by-side. Another contrasting feature is that, to represent some of the same sounds, the Americanist tradition relies heavily on letters modified with diacritics; whereas the IPA, which reserves diacritics for other specific uses, gave Greek and Latin letters new shapes. These differing approaches reflect the traditions' differing philosophies. 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 "reorthographized", 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 Labiodental Dental Alveolar Retroflex Alveopalatal Palatal
Velar Uvular
Stop (oral) plain voiceless p   t k q    
voiced b   d g ġ    
glottalized voiceless (ejective)   t̯̓ ṭ̓ t̓ʸ k̯̓   ʔ
voiced (imploded)           ġ̓    
Affricate central voiceless   pᶠ tᶿ c č̣ č   qˣ̣    
voiced   bᵛ dᶞ ʒ ǯ̣ ǯ   gᵞ ġᵞ̇    
glottalized     t̓ᶿ č̣̓ č̓          
lateral voiceless       ƛ              
voiced       λ              
glottalized       ƛ̓              
Fricative central voiceless φ f θ s ṣ̌ š x h
voiced β v ð z ẓ̌ ž γ̑ γ γ̇ ʕ  
lateral voiceless       ł              
glottalized       ł̓              
Nasal voiceless M   N   Ñ        
voiced m ɱ n ñ ŋ̑ ŋ ŋ̇    
glottalized           ŋ̓ ŋ̇̓    
Liquid rhotic plain       r          
lateral plain     l      
glide plain w           y        

Doubly articulated stops are written with an initial superscript: ᵏp ᵍb ᵍɓ ᵑm for [k͡p ɡ͡b ɠ͡ɓ ŋ͡m].


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.

Approximant r
Flap ř

Thus uvular trill ṛ̃ etc. Other flaps are ň etc.

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.

  •   ¢   =   c
  •   j   =   ʒ
  •   ǰ   =   ǯ
  •   ƚ   =   ł
  •   ɸ   =   φ
  •   G   =   ġ
  •   X   =  
  •   ʸ   =   fronted velar (e.g., kʸ = k̯, gʸ = g̑)

The fronting diacritic may be a caret rather than an inverted breve, e.g. dental ṱ and palatal k̭.

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

Pullum & Ladusaw

According to Pullum & Ladusaw (1996),[1] current Americanist symbols are closer to the IPA. There is however little standardization of rhotics, and may be either retroflex or uvular. Only precomposed affricates are shown; others may be indicated by digraphs.

  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palato-
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn-
Stop (oral) voiceless p   t k q   ʔ
voiced b   d g ġ    
Affricate voiceless   ȼ č      
voiced   dz ǰ      
Lateral affricate voiceless       ƛ              
voiced       λ              
Fricative voiceless ɸ f θ s š x ħ h
voiced β v ð z ž γ̑ γ γ̇ ʕ ɦ
Lateral fricative voiceless       ł              
Nasal m n ñ ŋ ŋ̇    
Rhotic     r        
Lateral     l      
Glide (w)           y (w)    

Ejectives and implosives follow the same conventions as in the IPA.


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 ɪ ᴜ̈   ɪ̈
Mid tense e ö ə ë o
lax ɛ ɔ̈ ʌ ɛ̈ ɔ
Low æ a ɑ ɒ


Pullum & Ladusaw

According to Pullum & Ladusaw (1996), current Americanist usage is more-or-less as follows (no system has been standardized):

Americanist vowel symbols
Front Central Back
unround round unround round unround round
High (higher) i ü ɨ ʉ ï u
lower ɪ ᴜ̈ ɪ̈
Mid higher e ö ə ë o
lower ɛ ɔ̈ ʌ ɔ
Low æ a/ɑ
Lower-Low a ɑ ɒ

Bloch & Trager

Bloch & Trager (1942) is as follows. They use a single dot for central vowels and a dieresis to reverse backness. The only central vowels with their own letters are <ɨ>, which already has a dot, and <ᵻ>, which would not be distinct if formed with a dot.

Bloch & Trager vowel symbols
Front Central Back
unround round unround round unround round
High i ü ɨ u̇ ï u
Lower-high ɪ ᴜ̈ ̇ ɪ̈
Higher-mid e ö ė ȯ ë o
Mean-mid ꭥ̈ ̇ ̇ ᴇ̈
Lower-mid ɛ ɔ̈ ɛ̇ ɔ̇ ɛ̈ ɔ
Higher-low æ ω̈ æ̇ ω̇ æ̈ ω
Low a ɒ̈ ȧ ɒ̇ ä ɒ

Chomsky & Halle

Chomsky & Halle (1968) is as follows. In addition, there is ə for an unstressed reduced vowel.

Chomsky & Halle vowel symbols
[back] [+back]
[round] [+round] [round] [+round]
[+high low] [+tense] i ü ᵻ̄ u
[tense] ɪ ᴜ̈
[high low] [+tense] e ȫ ʌ̄ ō
[tense] ɛ ö ʌ o
[high +low] [+tense] ǣ ɔ̄ē* ā ɔ̄
[tense] æ ɔe* a ɔ

* This ligature, Unicode ꭢ, does not yet have wide font support.


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 charts were agreed by committee of the American Anthropological Association in 1916.[2]

The vowel chart is based on the classification of H. Sweet. The high central vowels are differentiated by moving the centralizing dot to the left rather than with a cross stroke. IPA equivalents are given in a few cases that may not be clear.

narrow wide
high ï˙ıiɩ̈˙ɩɩ
mid α [ʌ] ea ε
low ȧä
high round uüυυ̇ϋ
mid round oȯöɔɔ̇ɔ̈
low round ωω̇ω̈
  Stops Spirants Affricates Nasals Laterals Lateral Affricates Rolled Consonants
Surd Sonant Intermed. Aspirated 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‛  , 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‛  , 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 ᴧ̯ λ̯ ᴧ̯! τ̯ᴧ δ̯ᴧ τ̯ᴧ!      
Dorsal τ δ Δ τ‛ τ̓ , τ! σ ζ σ! τσ δζ τσ!
λ ᴧ! τᴧ δᴧ τᴧ!      
τ̣ δ̣ Δ̣ τ̣‛ τ̣̓ , τ̣! σ̣ ζ̣ σ̣! τ̣σ δ̣ζ τ̣σ!
ᴧ̣ λ̣ ᴧ̣! τ̣ᴧ δ̣ᴧ τ̣ᴧ!      
y) y) (Δy) y‛) (τ̓ , τy!) cy jy cy! tcy djy tcy! (
(ᴧy) y) (ᴧy!) (τᴧy) (δᴧy) (τᴧy!)      
(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 , y!) 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‛  , k! x γ x! kx kx! Ŋ ŋ       gl kƚ! Ρ ρ ρ!
Back palatal,
 (q) ɢ̣ ḳ‛ ḳ̓ , ḳ! γ̣ x̣! ḳx g̣γ ḳx! Ŋ̣ ŋ̣       ḳƚ g̣l ḳƚ! Ρ̣ ρ̣ ρ̣!
Glottal        , h a (any
Laryngeal ’̣     ’̣   (any vowel with laryngeal resonance)   ’̣ḥ                          


See also


  1. Phonetic Symbol Guide, 2nd ed., p. 301302
  2. Boas, Goddard, Sapir & Kroeber (1916) Phonetic Transcription of Indian Languages: Report of Committee of American Anthropological Association. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 66.6. Chart is a fold-out behind the back cover that is not reproduced at this link.

External links


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