Naming conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) requires specific names for the symbols and diacritics used in the alphabet.

It is often desirable to distinguish an IPA symbol from the sound it is intended to represent, since there is not a one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound in broad transcription. The symbol's names and phonetic descriptions are described in the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. The symbols also have nonce names in the Unicode standard. In some cases, the Unicode names and the IPA names do not agree. For example, IPA calls ɛ "epsilon", but Unicode calls it "small letter open E".


The traditional names of the Latin and Greek letters are used for unmodified symbols. In Unicode, some of the symbols of Greek origin have Latin forms for use in IPA; the others use the symbols from the Greek section.


IPA symbol namephonetic descriptionUnicode name
p(lowercase) pvoiceless bilabial stopLATIN SMALL LETTER P
x(lowercase) xvoiceless velar fricativeLATIN SMALL LETTER X
r(lowercase) rcoronal trillLATIN SMALL LETTER R
βbetavoiced bilabial fricativeGREEK SMALL LETTER BETA
ɛepsilonopen-mid front unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER OPEN E
ɣgammavoiced velar fricativeLATIN SMALL LETTER GAMMA
θthetavoiceless dental fricativeGREEK SMALL LETTER THETA
χchivoiceless uvular fricativeGREEK SMALL LETTER CHI
ɸphi[decimal 1]voiceless bilabial fricativeLATIN SMALL LETTER PHI
ʊupsilon [decimal 2]near-close near-back rounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER UPSILON


  1. The Latin phi; the old-style or Greek phi (φ) is used in linguistics to mark prosodic units (foot).
  2. The Latin upsilon is frequently called "horseshoe u" in order to distinguish it from the Greek upsilon (υ). Historically, it derives from a Latin small capital U.

The IPA standard includes some small capital letters, such as ʀ, although it is common to refer to these symbols as simply "capital" or "cap" letters, because the IPA standard does not include any full-size capital letters.

Cursive-based letters

A few letters have the forms of cursive or script letters. Examples:

IPA symbol namephonetic descriptionUnicode name
ɑsingle-story aopen back unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER ALPHA
ɡsingle-story g[decimal 1]voiced velar stopLATIN SMALL LETTER SCRIPT G
ʋcursive v[decimal 2]labiodental approximantLATIN SMALL LETTER V WITH HOOK


  1. The double-story g () is not strictly an IPA character, but is an acceptable alternative.
  2. In form and origin, but not in name, this is the Greek upsilon.


Ligatures are called precisely that, although some have alternate names. Examples:

IPA symbol namephonetic descriptionUnicode name
œethelopen-mid front rounded vowelLATIN SMALL LIGATURE OE
ɮl-ʒ ligature, or lezhvoiced coronal lateral fricativeLATIN SMALL LETTER LEZH
æashnear-open front unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER AE

Rotated letters

Many letters are turned, or rotated 180 degrees. Examples:

IPA symbol namephonetic descriptionUnicode name
ʎturned ypalatal lateral approximantLATIN SMALL LETTER TURNED Y
ɥturned hlabial-palatal approximantLATIN SMALL LETTER TURNED H
ɒturned single-story aopen back rounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER TURNED ALPHA
ʌturned v[decimal 1]open-mid back unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL TURNED V
ɔopen o[decimal 2]open-mid back rounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER OPEN O
  1. The symbol ʌ is often also called "caret" or "wedge" for its similarity to that diacritic.
  2. The symbol ɔ can be described as a reversed c, but it is almost always referred to as open o, which describes both its articulation and its shape.

A few letters are reversed (flipped on a vertical axis):

IPA symbol namephonetic descriptionUnicode name
ɘreversed eclose-mid central unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER REVERSED E
ɜreversed epsilonopen-mid central unrounded vowelLATIN SMALL LETTER REVERSED OPEN E [decimal 1]
ʕreversed glottal stop [decimal 2]voiced pharyngeal fricativeLATIN LETTER PHARYNGEAL VOICED FRICATIVE [decimal 3]
  1. The old Unicode name for this character is LATIN SMALL LETTER REVERSED EPSILON.
  2. This IPA symbol is often called by the name of the corresponding Arabic letter, ayin.
  3. The old Unicode name for this character is LATIN LETTER REVERSED GLOTTAL STOP.

One letter is inverted (flipped on a horizontal axis): ʁ inverted capital small R. (ʍ could also be called an inverted w, but turned w is more common.)

Letters with extra lines, curls and serifs

When a horizontal stroke is added, it is called a crossbar: ħ barred h, ɵ barred o, ʢ reversed barred glottal stop or barred ayin, ɟ barred dotless j or barred gelded j (apparently never 'turned f'), ǂ double-barred pipe, etc.

swyat through it: ø slashed o.

The implosives have hook tops: ɓ hook-top b, as does ɦ hook-top h.

Such an extension at the bottom of a letter is called a tail. It may be specified as left or right depending on which direction it turns: ɳ right-tail n, ɻ right-tail turned r, ɲ left-tail n, ʐ tail z (or just retroflex z), etc. But note: ŋ eng or engma, ɱ meng, heng.

When the tail loops over itself, it's called curly: ʝ curly-tail j, ɕ curly-tail c.

There are also a few unique modifications: ɬ belted l, ɞ closed reversed epsilon (there was once also a ɷ closed omega), ɰ right-leg turned m, ɺ turned long-leg r (there was once also a long-leg r), ǁ double pipe, and the obsolete ʗ stretched c.

Several non-English letters have traditional names: ç c cedilla, ð eth (also spelled edh), ŋ engma or eng, ə schwa (also spelled shwa), ǃ exclamation mark, ǀ pipe.

Other symbols are unique to the IPA, and have developed their own quirky names: ɾ fish-hook r, ɤ ram's horns, ʘ bull's eye, ʃ esh (apparently never 'stretched s'), ʒ ezh (sometimes confused with yogh), ɧ hook-top heng.

The ʔ is usually called by the sound it represents, glottal stop. This is not normally a problem, because this symbol is seldom used to represent anything else. However, to specify the symbol itself, it is sometimes called a gelded question mark. This latter name is derived from its original form as a dotless question mark in a fashion reminiscent of gelding.

Diacritic marks

Traditionally named diacritics

é acute, ē macron, è grave, ê circumflex, ě wedge or háček, ë diaeresis or umlaut, ĕ breve, (superscript) tilde, plus variants such as subscript tilde, ɫ superimposed tilde, etc.

Non-traditionally named diacritics

seagull, hook, over-cross, d ̚ corner, bridge, inverted bridge, square, under-ring, over-ring, left half-ring, right half-ring, plus, under-bar, arch, subscript wedge, up tack, down tack, left tack, right tack, d͡z tie bar, under-dot, under-stroke.

Diacritics are alternately named after their function: The bridge is also called the dental sign, the under-stroke the syllabicity sign, etc.


  • Pullum, Geoffrey K., and William A. Ladusaw. 1996. Phonetic Symbol Guide, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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