Thursday, 24 September 2009

two symbols frequently confused

I have just had to remind someone not to confuse the phonetic symbols ɤ and ɣ.
The first, ɤ, is the symbol for a back close-mid unrounded vowel, cardinal 15. This is the vowel heard in Mandarin Chinese 刻 [kɤ] ‘carve’.
The second, ɣ, is the symbol for a voiced velar fricative. This, or the corresponding approximant, is the consonant heard in the middle of Spanish fuego [ˈfweɣo] ‘fire’, Greek εγώ [eˈɣo] ‘I’, etc.

Confusion of these two symbols was something I often had to correct in authors’ manuscripts when I was the editor of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Since other copy editors may not have been so symbol-obsessed as me, the confusion is found uncorrected in quite a few printed books.

At its 1989 Kiel Convention the IPA discussed this issue. At the time the vowel symbol was usually printed with straight sides (although on the line, x-height), making it very similar to the consonant symbol (which descended through the line). See this scan of the IPA Principles booklet (1949 edition). The recommendation of the Kiel Convention was to change the sides into a curly “rams-horn” shape, which is what we use today.


If you have installed Doulos SIL, you should be able to see what they look like in a serifed font:


  1. I found this same confusion of symbols on the IPA chart on the inside front cover of my copy of the fourth edition of Ladefoged's 'A Course in Phonetics'. So I suppose if it can turn up there, it can turn up anywhere.

  2. And I thought ɪ and ː could be confusing in some fonts.

    The seriffed version is certainly the clearest.

  3. I have always confusion of these type of fonts this is one amongst them. Thanks for clearing my concept I thins that these characters are belonging to Unicode character set.

  4. My Oxford dictionary of Spanish (the biggest, thickest edition) even confuses these symbols: it uses ram's horns for the allophone of Sp. /g/ in some sections of the text and Roman gamma in others. While their section on Spanish pronunciation for L1 English speakers is the best (or least worst) of the popular dictionaries that I know of, I find this mistake surprising for "the world's most trusted dictionaries".
    Dan McCarthy

  5. David Marjanović3 October 2009 at 18:23

    Random nitpick: the sound written k in the Pīnyīn transcription of Mandarin is not [k], it's nothing short of the aspirated affricate [k͡xʰ]. The Pīnyīn g is voiceless, so many (perhaps all) IPA transcriptions of Mandarin write it as [k], even though it's a voiceless lenis.

    Phonologically, going with Pīnyīn and calling them /g/ and /k/ would make sense, but people tend to emphasize the very strong aspiration and write them as /k/ and /kʰ/.