Vowel chart body art

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Before I had even met American Heritage Dictionary supervising editor Steve Kleinedler, I knew about his tattoo. A 2005 New York Times article about the young Turks of American lexicography revealed that Steve "has a phonetic vowel chart tattooed across his back." Recently Steve upgraded his ink with an even more elaborate IPA chart. Since my brother Carl has supplemented his science blog The Loom with the Science Tattoo Emporium, I asked Steve to send along a shot of his new improved body art to add to the collection. Read all about it here.

(Also in the Emporium, there's an Aztec speech glyph, some Paiute IPA, and a glottal stop. Feel free to email Carl with photos of your own linguistic tattoos.)


  1. John Lawler said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    So how come then, if their editors know IPA, American dictionaries still refuse to use it to mark pronunciations, but insist instead on using some random variant on a 200-year-old system which misrepresents almost everything, and which nobody ever learns to use? (Alone, I might add, of all countries in the world (not unlike the Metric System)).

    I'd prefer to see a tattoo of the American Heritage Pronunciation System. Now that would be something.

  2. Malvolio said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    The IPA suffers from the same shortcoming as the metric system: despite its theoretical "practicality", most people (at least most Americans) just don't understand it, making it completely impractical.

  3. John Lawler said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    The same, only more so, can be said about the Webster system in use in American dictionaries. Using it has the additional effect, however, of making the pronunciations in the dictionaries completely useless to non-English speakers.

    And I think it's about time the world gave up on trying to make excuses for stupid American practices based on what is considered the invincible ignorance of the American public.

  4. Yuval said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    "Scratch me at schwa".
    The possibilities are endless.

  5. Steve Kleinedler said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    Ben: Thank you for the post.

    American dictionaries use phonemic, not phonetic systems. If we were to use the IPA — which American accent would we represent? The "a" of cat is pronounced differently in different parts of the country. I'm sure most Americans wouldn't want me using my native Northern Cities Vowel Shifted pronunciations…

    By phonemically pegging the short a to the word cat, for example, when encountering a word with an a-breve, the speaker will know to pronounce it however he or she pronounces cat.

  6. Army1987 said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    (And you can peg /ae/ to TRAP, too. That's what the slashes mean.)

  7. Nathan said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    We were introduced to the "dictionary-style" system in my 2nd grade spelling book. It started off using pictures to represent the sounds, and a few chapters in it associated the phonemic symbols with those pictures. Nearly every English dictionary I've ever seen uses a close cousin of that system, so it's always been pretty understandable to me (though not even the teacher knew why they had distinct symbols for the initial vowels of ostrich and octopus).

    Then I learned IPA in high school from the English-Spanish dictionary we used. Here's the part I never understand: why do people complain about a dictionary using a notation that's explained right there in the dictionary?

    And ditto to what Steve Kleinedler said. People who argue for either English orthography reform or phonetic transcription of English seem to be ignoring the huge diversity of English varieties. It's a great big language, with many radically different accents.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    re malvolio: Impractical, that is, for pronunciations in monolingual dictionaries intended for the use of native speakers of American English. Not disagreeing with you here, just expanding.

    re John Lawler's "making the pronunciations in the dictionaries completely useless to non-English speakers": See previous paragraph. Non-English speakers are at most a small secondary market for American dictionaries; I'm sure Jesse and other posters and readers here can correct me if I'm wrong.

    Most Americans have no concept of "phonemic" vs. "phonetic", and expecting them to learn it is hopelessly idealistic (or something of the sort) — try ordering a kilo of turkey breast at your local supermarket or deli. Using IPA in American monolingual dictionaries would result in a combination of
    misreadings, producing mispronunciations stamped with the authority of "the dictionary"
    misunderstandings of the IPA, carrying over into its use in other contexts, such as learning other languages
    people totally ignoring the pronunciations, which would destroy that component of the dictionary's value.

  9. Trond Engen said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    A more useful add-on would be a consonant chart so that one might find the voiced velar plosive.

  10. John Lawler said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    IPA (or rather that subset of it that includes English phonemes (with or without extra low back vowels as in US/UK dialects) is eminently simple to learn. Doesn't need macrons, doesn't need italics, only has one spelling for shwa, and is much smaller than the US dictionaries' current systems.

    A modest example (in Midwestern English, but one may not be able to tell that from the transcription) can be seen (with accompanying transcription of a familiar text) at http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/modestproposal.pdf

    The nature of the text should illustrate the expected level of the material.

  11. Lance said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Steve's answer above is of course a good one (hi Steve!). I'll add that about eight years ago I asked this very question—why not use IPA?—of John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster. His response was that as it was they got letters complaining about their representation of pronunciation from people who wanted them to use the grade-school "reh-preh-sen-TAY-shun uv pruh-nun-see-AY-shun", and that much as he'd personally love to switch to IPA, the dictionary-reading public would hate it. (And they wouldn't adapt to it; they'd go buy someone else's dictionary.) The dictionary systems may look baroque, but having the vowel in "meet" spelled with an "e" (dictionary-style") rather than an "i" (IPA-style) is extremely helpful to non-IPA-knowers.

    Also, to John's comment above that "IPA…is eminently simple to learn"…well, having just taught an Intro to Linguistics course, I'd beg to differ. Especially when it comes to the vowels, there's a lot that's easy to confuse.

  12. axon said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 12:04 am


    most people do understand the metric system, and very well, making it very practical indeed. there is, we hear, a small minority of people who don't. they call themselves "Americans".

  13. John Lawler said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 1:08 am

    It does seem weird that MW has published Kenyon & Knott's Pronouncing Dictionary of American English since 1953 but won't use a real phonemic system it anywhere except in their book. After teaching very smart American college students for 40 years I can confidently say that most of them had never encountered in their education any representation of speech sounds that wasn't based on some feeble rationalization of traditional English spelling. Except for the non-native speakers, who'd used bilingual dictionaries, and they use IPA universally. First graders do better, in my experience, than college students, at least on this task, since they have so much less to unlearn.

    For 40 years or more I've recommended to my students that they buy British dictionaries and not American, since many British dictionaries actually include grammatical information (e.g, a bowl of rice/*rices vs a bowl of *bean/beans), and while they only show the Received Pronunciation, at least they show it in IPA; if people want American pronunciation, Kenyon & Knott is cheap.

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 3:53 am

    Actually, most Americans are fine with the metric system for some things too – who ever talks about quarts of soda or pounds of cocaine?

  15. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 3:53 am

    (Interestingly, they do seem to talk about quarts of milk and pounds of marijuana.)

  16. Mark Anderson said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    @axon & malvolio

    Add British people to the list who don't fully understand the metric system, and flip back and forward between the two systems, eg often using fahrenheit for high weather temperatures, celsius for low. We don't understand the peculiarities of the American system either (eg different sized pints), but come across it less frequently than metric. Metric (SI units) has been the primary system taught in British schools since the 1970s.

    "Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
    Half a pound of treacle.
    That’s the way the money goes,
    Pop goes the weasel."

  17. mollymooly said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary's transcription is not phonemic: it uses separate symbols for each "vowel class". These classes map differently to phonemes in different accents, but no accent has a distinct phoneme for each class. Of course, some variability is word-based rather than accent-based: having two different transcriptions captures the former, having one transcription using a variable cover-symbol captures the latter. Nice.

    For monolingual dictionaries for native speakers, I prefer this approach to the IPA approach used by British dictionaries. Favouring IPA in such contexts is misplaced snobbery, since those only represent RP. Useful for EFL learners with an RP target accent; not useful for native speakers with some other accent. It's significant that the only British holdout is Chambers, based in Edinburgh, whose respelling system fastidiously allows for the Scottish accents' rhoticity and some vowel distinctions merged in RP.

  18. Army1987 said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    You can do this in IPA, too. Wikipedia's transcription has a way of distinguishing all lexical sets (except BATH and CLOTH, for which you need to write "either /(TRAP)/ or /(PALM)/" and "either /(THOUGHT)/ or /(LOT)/", respectively. Sorry if I'm too lazy to insert the symbols).

  19. John Cowan said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    Whether a representation is phonetic, phonemic, or diaphonemic is quite independent of which symbols are chosen to represent the significands. A diaphonemic scheme like NID3's would be perfectly consistent with the use of well-chosen IPA characters to represent the diaphonemes. Whenever IPA is used for anything but straight phonetic transcription, there is invariably some distortion.

    While I'm at it, here is the latest Wells-Mills-Cowan-Rosta list of stressed-vowel lexical sets, which Cowan and Rosta believe represent the complete range of extant English accents:


  20. Lazar said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    @Steve Kleinedler: I think there's a consensus that /æ/ is to be used to represent the phoneme, and people are free to supply their own dialectical realizations. What you've put forth isn't just an argument for rejecting IPA for American English, it's an argument for rejecting IPA for any language that has significant dialectal phonological variation, which is absurd.

  21. Sandra Wilde said,

    December 27, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    I've got a schwa tattooed on my hand. Maybe I'll add more symbols.

    I hope sometime to get a free meal at the restaurant Schwa in Chicago.

  22. John said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    @Sandra Wilde: how can you tell it's a schwa and not an e?

  23. Army1987 said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Who distinguishes TRAIL from FREIGHT (apart from /l/-induced allophony), and how?

  24. AJD said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    On the other hand, the Wells-Mills-Cowan-Rosta lexical sets are at least missing the distinction between CURE and (let's say) TOUR.

  25. Boris said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 10:26 am


    "Then she held out a ten-pound bag of Cocaine / She said it was the finest in the land"


  26. Army1987 said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    AJD, that's what I was just about to say… I guess anyone distinguishing "through" from "threw" would also distinguish "cure" from (thanks for the example) "tour".

  27. Sandra Wilde said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    John: Good question. It's on the back of my hand down by the thumb so is a schwa in the handshake position. But I've told people that if I get bored with it I'll view it as an e from the other orientation and add letters to it. I could envision adding letters a little at a time – be, bed, Abednego. Shortly after I had it done I met Noam Chomsky at a conference and showed it to him, but I think he just thought I was strange.

  28. John Cowan said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    Army1987, AJD: The /j/ in CURE doesn't count as part of the stressed vowel, even though /ju/ often acts like a simple vowel in English, so CURE=TOUR. If these don't rhyme for you and can't be merged with any other rhotic stressed vowel, let me know.

    In most accents of English, FACE=TRAIL = FREIGHT, either with a monophthong or a diphthong, depending. However, a few (East Anglia, South Wales, Newfoundland) distinguish FACE (monophthong) from TRAIL=FREIGHT (diphthong), and even fewer (parts of Yorkshire, I think) have the diphthong only where /x/ used to follow, so FACE=TRAIL is distinct from FREIGHT. FREIGHT has only a few words: weigh(t), eight, freight, inveigh, neigh, neighbor, straight, and their inflectional and derived forms.

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