Clew's Brief History series offer a closer look into the origins, purpose, and use behind things in our everyday lives.

When it comes to Spanish or Finnish, the spelling or more formally, the orthography and the pronunciation of words is so close, it’s straightforward to sound out what's written. Not so with English. Deity, economics, and envelope have in common that they like to confuse people with their pronunciations. Is the "e" in economics pronounced as -ee (ee-kuh-NOM-icks) or as -e (eck-uh-NOM-icks)? A core feature of English dictionaries then, is the phonetic transcription alongside definitions. These transcriptions often follows the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) system. The IPA is the closest thing to an objective standard when it comes to representing the sounds of spoken language. Used right, someone who knows the IPA knows how to pronounce any word in any language.

Danish linguist Otto Jespersen first suggested the idea for the IPA in a letter he wrote to French linguist Paul Passy. Passy led the formal creation of the system in 1888. It’s a system with a set of symbols aimed at representing any vowel or consonant made by humans. The IPA, based primarily on the Latin script, includes 107 letters and 52 diacritics. The same way that the traditional alphabet is used to construct words, the phonetic alphabet is the basis for transcribing the sounds of a language.

Clew, according to the IPA system, is represented as kluː. Most British dictionaries like the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary and other learner’s dictionaries reference the IPA.

But the same way America gives the cold shoulder to the metric system, the IPA isn't used everywhere. In the Marriam Webster dictionary, which happens to be an American publisher, Clew is represented phonetically as klü. Most American volumes use one of many respelling systems that are based on General American (GA) pronunciations—the accent spoken by a majority of Americans, which to any American would sound accent-less. GA respelling systems tend to avoid non-alphabetic symbols and when using symbols, base them on English rather than Romance-language spelling conventions.

The IPA and other respelling systems like it, are useful beyond their place in dictionaries. Conversational AI for instance, uses all elements of speech to deliver a truly human-like voice. Prosody describes factors of speech like intonation, stress, and rhythm. It’s all the minutia of spoken language that feel intuitive to native speakers, but sometimes trip up new learners. The English noun digest has stress on the first syllable, but when it’s a verb, the stress falls on the second syllable. English is a stress-timed language which means that at least one syllable is stressed in any given word. This is also the reason why English speakers have trouble with French, misplacing the stress on syllables which ends up sounding like accented French. When prosody isn’t explicitly modelled in text-to-speech systems, it’s what can result in that classic monotonous robo-voice.

This is all to say, those scribble-like transcriptions next to dictionary definitions have a history, a purpose, and a surprisingly number of uses outside of "lookups".