Accents & Punctuation: May 2010 Archives

Book Review: Phonetic Symbol Guide


Since the issue of diacritic design came up, I thought I would recommend a book I've had on my bookshelf for a long time, the Phonetic Symbol Guide by Geoffrey Pullum and William Ladusaw.

For Typographers

The feature I like is that the book shows the individual symbols at a reasonably large size (ca 60 pts) with guidelines marking the baseline and the top of the x-height. This can be handy because phonetic transcription includes symbols that are actually small caps, particularly the uvular sounds /ɢ,ʀ,ʁ,ɴ,ʟ/ which are properly only as tall as the x-height. On the other hand the book acknowledges that phoneticians may cheat by using full cap /G,R,N,L/, especially in e-mail. Fortunately, this book doesn't judge.

A critique is that not every possible transcription symbol is included including those from the traditions such as the Uralic Phonetic Alphabet. Fortunately, there is more information online.

For Phoneticians

The other nice feature of this handbook is that it covers both IPA (as of 1996) and common non-IPA usage. If you are reading older articles, this is VERY handy as IPA was not really standardized everywhere in phonology until relatively recently. If you read articles from the 1970s (before we all had access to cool fonts), you will see all sorts of interesting non-IPA substitutions. I myself still prefer the Spanish to type /ñ/ for the palatal nasal /ɲ/, but my kind will eventually die out.

Even though IPA is being adopted by venues such as Wikipedia, I suspect there are some hold-outs from related fields such as historical linguistics, Celtic philology, Germanic philology and so forth. It's critical to know the IPA, but just as important to know the important variations.

On the other hand, if you are interested in learning proper IPA transcription, you should also own the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. However, it only covers the IPA and does not show large scale representations of the individual symbols (most are shown only at 12 point). It does, however, include Unicode points ("UCS") for the characters included in the IPA.


Diacritcs Website on...Diacritic Typography Design


The Diacritics site ( has been around for a while, but hadn't hit my radar until recently. What it does is describe the typographic design of individual diacritics (accent marks).

There's especially good coverage of the Central European accented letters (e.g. z̧,ł,ǫ) with ogoneks, hacheks and others. Site owner Filip Blažek is Czech, so he definitely knows his Central European typography. The site includes links to some excellent articles on proper diacritic design.

Coverage also includes Turkish (Ỉ,ş), Vietnamese tone marks, Greek diacritics as well as the familiar Western European accents (ñ, é, ü) and some Sanskrit. Finally the site includes articles about diacritic use and design in individual languages. There may be gaps, but readers are invited to supply more information.

On a personal note, I would add that most English-based typographers probably underestimate the importance of making diacritics legible - hence they often look like afterthoughts. As a result, I am forever adding bold formatting to accented letters on Web pages, just to enhance legibility.

Postscript - May 17, 2010

Another recommended site is out of the Eesti Keele Instituut in Estonia. It's a more technical database interface, but has lots of useful information, particularly in terms of specific languages and encoding tables.


About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage ( for a profile.


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