August 2022: redesigning the International Phonetic Alphabet (to put in your pocket)

This month, we rethought the structure of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Okay, let me explain.

The IPA is typically presented in a chart that shows the sounds of languages of the world arranged in two dimensions: from top to bottom as the mouth is more and more open and from left to right as the sound is produced from the front of the mouth to the back. It’s elegant, it’s informative, it’s a highly familiar reference diagram for linguists. So my cohost Lauren Gawne and I thought it would be nifty to create a more aesthetically attractive version of this already really neat technical diagram which is typically presented in rather boring technical greyscale, as practical-yet-elegant merch for our podcast, Lingthusiasm. Almost a year ago, we sent off an email to our resident artist, Lucy Maddox….and now, finally, here we are.

In the process, we’ve learned a whole lot about the history of the International Phonetic Alphabet (longer version in the thread below!)

We’ve also realized that we have some questions about parts of the IPA chart layout that we’d been taking for granted. For example: why is there a third chart for the non-pulmonic consonants like clicks and implosives, when they have the same places of articulation as the main, pulmonic consonant chart and could surely just be rows there? And, wouldn’t it be sort of nifty to put the vowels back in the same chart as the consonants again, when they used to hang out there for decades? This started as an art project, but any good art also provokes…questions. Longer version and speculations in this blog post.

At any rate, here’s what it looks like when we put all of the symbols on the same chart!

An abstract, minimalist* rendering of the International Phonetic Alphabet as a grid of white, sans-serif letters on a midnight blue background, with no row or column headings. Bright green is used as an accent colour, for solid green circles around the voiceless consonants; white circles with green font for the rounded vowels, and narrow green borders around the lateral sounds. There’s a small lingthusiasm logo in the bottom corner and a translucent “demo” watermark splashed in the background.

*Yes, we know there’s a syntax theory called Minimalism as well, which this has no real relationship to because it’s a different subfield. Consider it a bonus easter egg!

We also thought, wouldn’t it be ideal if this eclectic nerd art IPA design came in a convenient format for carrying around with you? One that might even be useful for other purposes? So we’re getting it imprinted onto microfibre lens cloths (useful for cleaning glasses, sunglasses, camera lenses, and phone/computer screens). The thing is, lens cloth printing companies only take orders in the hundreds or preferably thousands, so we’ve decided to place one massive order for everyone who’s a patron at the Lingthusiast tier as of October 5th, 2022. This is our most popular tier, which also gets you our whole archive of monthly bonus episodes and access to the Lingthusiasm patron Discord server — if you’ve been on the fence about becoming a patron, now would be a really good time for it. (Higher tiers can get several lens cloths, if you want spares or to share with friends.)

Here’s more about the IPA redesign and here’s the link to get it by becoming a patron if you’re already convinced.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm this month was Episode 71: Various vocal fold vibes (curious about what some of those circles mean on the IPA chart? This episode will help you with that!). The bonus episode was Bonus 66: Using a rabbit to get kids chatting for science.

Technically speaking, next month’s bonus episode is an interview with Lucy Maddox about the IPA chart redesign and being a linguist/artist but we’ve made that bonus episode free for a limited time until the IPA lens cloth special offer is closed on October 5th, so you should go listen to that now if you’re interested!

I also finished the #103papers project this month, reading 1 paper each for the 103 languages identified by Kidd&Garcia in the top 4 journals about child language acquisition. More on the big picture from what I learned later, but in the meantime, here’s a neat thing I learned:

LingComm, the International Conference on Linguistics Communication, has put out its participant/volunteer survey for the next conference in February 2023. I’m not organizing it this year, but this year’s committee is fantastic and I look forward to seeing there many linguists who do communication with broader audiences and journalists, podcasters, youtubers, and other communicators who do linguistics — if that’s you, do check it out!

At the end of the month, I headed to Chicago for a double feature: in August, participating in Ada Palmer’s Renaissance papal election simulation (description at Part 5) and in September, WorldCon/ChiCon8, about which more next month.

Selected tweets:

Selected blog posts:

This month’s image is a summary of what’s going on with the IPA lens cloth situation, for those who don’t like big blocks of text.

What if the International Phonetic Alphabet looked like weird nerd art? Get this design (arrow to previously-described abstract IPA demo) on a handy-to-carry lens cloth (image of those microfibre cloths you clean glasses with; these are not the actual cloths but just to give you an idea of the genre). (Tiny abstract drawing of Lauren & Gretchen silhouettes from the website.) We're placing one bulk order for everyone who's a Lingthusiast patron or higher as of October 5, 2022. Sign up at patreon.com/lingthusiasm