Thursday 14 June 2012


What happens when you want to italicize the ash symbol, æ? Here’s what it looks like in two fonts I often use, Cambria and Segoe UI. In the first, on the left, it retains the usual shape, but in the second it looks like a combination of ɑ and e rather than a and e. This makes it easy to confuse with an italic œ, namely œ. I certainly prefer the first, Cambria, type, which is why I was a bit surprised at Michael Everson’s version of this italic letter (blog, yesterday).

In the 1949 Principles of the IPA there was a special page devoted to cursive forms of the symbols. Back in those days joined-up handwriting was much more general than it is now, and people no doubt needed to know how to write the IPA characters with pen and ink in a way that enabled them to be joined (where appropriate) to the characters on either side. Note the careful attention to making a clear difference between cursive æ and cursive œ.

Jones himself used these cursive forms when making notes, and I suspect that it was he who handwrote the characters you see here. So did Hélène Coustenoble, who taught me French phonetics. But none of his successor generation (Gimson, O’Connor, Arnold, Pring, Trim) at UCL used these cursive forms; nor does anyone alive today (as far as I know).

Without this key I think it might be difficult to recognize the cursive forms shown for ʎ ɹ ç ʕ ø ɐ ɩ and ʏ, not to mention the shape suggested for the length mark ː. The cursive form of ɲ, which I have indeed encountered, can easily be mistaken for some people’s handwritten p.

Perhaps it’s just as well that nowadays we write the symbols as block (lower-case) letters — or use a keyboard.


  1. Tomorrow: German pre-Nazi phonetic kurrentschrift?

  2. Fascinating. I'd love to see some of these cursive transcriptions; they must be beautiful.

  3. As I'm sure you know, æ is used as a letter in Danish and Norwegian. You can see the standard handwritten cursive form here (it's the letter after z):

    1. Ouch. For IPA purposes, that looks far too much like a sloppy handwritten ɑ.

      I have seen, but can't now find, images of an Icelandic Fraktur font that shows how to do thorn, edh, and yogh/ezh in Fraktur. AFAIK nobody has generalized this to the whole of IPA. Yet.

  4. In Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic where æ is used as a letter, there is no risk of confusion with œ because the latter is not used as a letter. The Segoe UI solution works better with those languages. For IPA purposes, of course, the Cambria version is better.

    This is yet another case where designers of typefaces have to consider the intended uses and optimize for them. The design of Greek letters is another case where the design decisions would be different depending on whether they are for setting text in the Greek alphabet or for IPA.

    It is possible to offer several variant glyphs for the same character in an OpenType font, though you often need specialized software to make use of this functionality. This is why it is still useful to have specialized typefaces for phonetic symbols.

  5. I've always wondered how to you pronounce Charis, Gentium and Segoe right. ˈkærɪs, ˈkɑːrɪs or ˈkeərɪs? ˈgentiəm? ˈsiːgəʊ?

    1. Wikipedia agrees with you on the latter.

    2. Oh, OK, at least I got one of them right. What about the rest? I presume you are Dutch, but how do you pronounce them?

    3. I now see that the ODE (not a typo) has ˌdʒʌs ˈdʒɛntiəm, -ʃiəm, ˈgɛntiem for jus gentium (“international law”),

    4. Segoe is uncontroversially pronounced SEEgo (I see, I go, I conquer). Microsoft Typography told me that to my face.

  6. I say ˈkærɪs, ˈdʒentiəm, and ˈsiːgəʊ.

  7. A variety of cursive phonetic symbols is still in common use in American Drama schools. It's popularity, i believe, has largely to do with this textboook:

    I don't know it well enough to say how closely it follows Jones - for one thing it uses only the symbols needed to describe the accent being taught - but I can say there are many teachers teaching this form of unconnected cursive phonetics.

  8. oh... maybe this link will work better:

    the book is Speak with Distinction by Edith Skinner

  9. John Wells in his 9 May 2006 blog entry votes for /ˈkærɪs/, /ˈduːlɒs/ and /ˈdʒentiəm/.

  10. What font can I use to italicize (but not make cursive) 'a' as in 'long a'? I am not talking about a phoneme or allophone, so I don't want to use // or []. If I italicize it, the 'a' becomes script 'a', which I think will be misleading since I am talking about cardinal vowels 4 and 5 (in // and []) elsewhere in my paper.

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