Pronunciation guides can be a little like deciphering a secret code. But you don’t need a decoder ring to make sense of those funny symbols you’ll find in the dictionary. The International Phonetic Association (IPA) created a pronunciation guide that is mostly used by linguists and other language scholars. It can be a little complicated, but having a standard guide is extremely important for people across languages and backgrounds to be able to understand each other.

Sometimes, dictionaries use a phonetic pronunciation, or their own version of a pronunciation guide. Any dictionary will have a section where it explains how to use the pronunciation guide. Let’s take a look at deciphering IPA, the most commonly used standard pronunciation guide.

(Note: British and American dictionaries will have different pronunciations to account for the variations in accent. We’ll be talking about American pronunciations here.)

The building blocks of language

Vowels: The vowels in English are “a, e, i, o, u,” and as you probably learned in kindergarten, sometimes “y.” These letters can be combined with each other and with consonants to create new sounds. The vowels can change pronunciation depending on what letters they are joined with, but that’s the beauty of a pronunciation guide — each sound has its own symbol.

Consonants: Consonants are all the letters in the alphabet that are not vowels. Do a little arithmetic and that means there are 21 consonants, but there are more than 21 consonants sounds. Some letters make duplicate sounds, like “c” and “k,” depending on how the word is spelled. Sometimes consonant sounds are made when more than one consonant is pronounced together, like “ch” or “sh.”

Diphthongs: Pull out this funny-sounding word at your next cocktail party. Diphthongs are the sounds that are made when two vowels are put together. This can be a simple sound like “oo,” or it can start with one vowel sound and move into another, like the “oa” in broad. Again, a good pronunciation guide will include distinct symbols for each one of these diphthongs.

Syllables: Here’s an easy one. You probably learned how to count out the syllables by clapping your hands. In a pronunciation guide the syllables are defined by spaces or slashes in between each part, and it makes it easier to sound out each particular syllable.

Stresses: What does it sound like when you put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble? Stresses can change based on accent, but a good pronunciation guide will demonstrate exactly where to place the stress, through bolded text or another symbol.

IPA symbols

IPA, with its funny-looking symbols, can be hard to decipher for the beginning user, but it’s worth the struggle. These symbols and sounds provide clarity and consistency when you’re looking up an unfamiliar word, or especially when learning a new language.

Below is the IPA symbol, followed by an example words and the sound for the American English language.

Vowel Pronunciation Symbols

i see, we, happy

ɪ sit, wit, hymn

ɛ ten, bed, dress

æ cat, trap

ɑ hot, odd

ɔ saw, thought, war

ʊ put, foot, good

u too, you, glue

ʌ cup, mud, blood

ə about, standard

eɪ say, weigh, clay

aɪ five, high, try

ɔɪ boy, choice

aʊ now, mouth

oʊ go, low

ər bird, heard, word

ɪr near, leer

ɛr hair, beware, care

ɑr car, charge

ɔr north, course

ʊr tour, lure,

Consonant Pronunciation Symbols

p pen, play

b bad, back

t tea, tap

t̮ butter, water

d did, dime

k cat, kite

g got, game

tʃ chin, match, church

dʒ June, judge, age

f fall, fail, fort

v voice, move

ɵ thin, author, path

ð then, smooth

s so, sister

z zoo, zit

ʃ she, sure, national

ʒ vision, pleasure

h how, whole, head

m man, hammer

n no, know, fun

ŋ sing, anger, finger

l leg, lost, valley

r red, race, wrong

y yes, yak

w wet, when, one, queen

x Chanukah,

Note: All IPA symbols and examples are according to the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary.