The phonemic alphabet: Why is it used?

English is a language with many ancestors, and many of its words have been derived, borrowed, or even lifted directly from hundreds of other languages.

Most of the time, these new words carry their original pronunciation, or a close approximation of it, with them when they enter the English language. This is the reason for the numerous apparent inconsistencies in the relationship of spelled words to their pronunciation. For example, the combination “ea” is pronounced differently in “great” [greĭt], “treat” [trit], and “threat” [θret]; the letter “g” has a different sound in “give” [gɪv] than in “gist” [dʒɪst]; and so on.

Some differences are easy to hear, but others are more subtle. Phonemic symbols connect the sounds to a consistent system of written representation that can be used for all spoken languages.

Go to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to learn more about phonemic symbols!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris


2 thoughts on “The phonemic alphabet: Why is it used?

  1. Hi, Jeremy. I found you through my dear friend Sharon Mann. I taught English in Brussels for almost seven years, and I never attempted to employ English phonetics with any of my students. Are you using it with all your students? Apparently, you’re doing something right! I find that amazing. And … more power to you, brother! Best wishes, David Palmer (

    • Hi David, thanks for your comment. I definitely use phonemic symbols when coaching diction, essentially for the reasons I indicated above. When teaching general English, I typically use them only when clarifying the pronunciation of a particular word or comparing its pronunciation to that of a word the student already pronounces correctly. Of course, if the student is interested in studying the phonemic alphabet and its uses more deeply, I’m happy to oblige!

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