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How to type phonetic symbols

Posted: 2016-09-18 (Modified: 2016-11-23)

When I learn a foreign language, I need to memorize many words. In the past, I would often write them down on paper, but these days I type them using a text editor. Then one problem arises: how to type phonetic symbols?

There are mainly five methods to type phonetic symbols as shown below. You may wonder which way is the best. It’t difficult to answer this question because each has its advantages and disadvantages. Actually, we don’t have to answer the question because you can use them in parallel. If you are interested in comparison of key sequences, see the table in Appendix.

  1. Web application
    Some web site provide interface to type IPA symbols graphically.

    These may be the easiest way for people who do not familiar with computers. One disadvantage is that you have to use a mouse or another pointing device. It would decrease productivity.

  2. Vim (digraph)
    A great text editor Vim provides a method to type complex characters such as ‹æ›. :digraphs shows the list of characters and its key sequence. You can enter the digraph mode by typing <Ctrl-K>. An advantage of the system is that you can keep editing text. Furthermore, it’s easy to customize the combinations. For example, to register a sequence for ‹ɐ› (decimal encoding: 592), just add one line digraph a5 594 to ~/.vimrc. Then, <Ctrl-K> a5 put the characters ‹ɐ›. However, since Vim is a text editor, you have to copy and paste the characters to use it on other applications.

  3. LaTeX (TIPA)
    TIPA is a package for LaTeX to print IPA characters. As long as you make a vocabulary list using LaTeX, it is one of the best tool for IPA. Of course, since this is a LaTeX package, you cannot use it outside LaTeX environment.

    \documentclass{article}
    \usepackage[safe]{tipa}
    \begin{document}
    \textipa{f@"nEtIks}
    \end{document}

    These days, some LaTeX processor such as LuaTeX and XeTeX supports Unicode well. This means that if you type ‹ə›, they print it as is in the text editor. Thus it is more intuitive and reusable than TIPA. However, this also means that you have to input special characters, so this does not solve our first problem. With digraphs, Compose Key, or X-SAMPA, these can be a good tool for creating a vocabulary list. Modern TeX environments also enable you to change fonts easily.

    \documentclass{article}
    \usepackage{fontspec}
    \newfontfamily\doulos{Doulos SIL}
    \begin{document}
    {\doulos fəˈnɛtɪks }
    \end{document}
  4. Compose Key
    Compose Key is a system for typing special characters. Probably it is not enabled by default. See pages that explain how to configure (e.g. ENABLING THE COMPOSE KEY). On Windows, its alternative WinCompose is available. The key sequences registered in its Xcompose.txt can also be used in Linux. Save it as ~/.XCompose, then you can add many combinations immediately. However, perhaps, this does not work if you use an old version of fcitx. See fcitx breaks X11 compose.

  5. X-SAMPA
    X-SAMPA is a way of representing phones using only ASCII characters. Each of the characters has a corresponding character in the IPA system, and therefore it can be used as an input method for IPA. One of its implementations is available in Fcitx, and it is provided as a binary package named “fcitx-table-ipa-x-sampa” in Ubuntu. One of its shortcomings is that you have to switch input methods to type even one IPA symbol. Moreover, you may possibly find it difficult to memorize key sequences because they are sometimes not intuitive.

Appendix

The table below shows how to type each symbol (Compose is the default key sequences of Wincompose). Note that all of the input methods is customizable on your need.

Symbol Name Vim TIPA Compose X-SAMPA
ɐ Turned A \textturna
5
aa 6
ɑ Script A A A
æ Ash ae \ae ae {
ʌ Turned V \textturnv
2
vv V
ɓ Hooktop B \texthtb
\!b
b’ b_<
ʙ Small capital B \textscb
\;B
b` B\
β Greek beta *b \textbeta
B
*b B
ç C cedilla c, \c{c} c, C
ɕ Curly-tail C C s\
ɗ Hooktop D \texthtd
\!d
d’ d_<
ɖ Right-tail D \textrtaild
\:d
d, d`
ð Eth \dh
D
dh D
ə Schwa @ ee @
ɛ Latin epsilon \textepsilon
E
eh E
ɡ Script G g gg g
ɢ Small capital G \;G g` G\
ɣ Latin gamma G gh G
ɤ Ram’s horns \textramshorns
7
7
ɦ Hooktop H \texthth
H
h\
ħ Crossed H /h \textcrh /h X\
ŋ Eng ng \ng
N
ng N
ɳ Right-tail N \textrtailn
\:n
n, n`
ɴ Small capital N \textscn
\;N
n` N\
ɪ Small capital I I i` I
ɔ Open O O o)
aw
O
ø Slashed O o/ \o o/ 2
œ O-E ligature oe \oe oe 9
ɸ Latin phi \textphi
F
ph p\
ɹ Turned R \textturnr rr r\
ɾ Fishhook R \textfishhookr rd 4
ʀ Small capital R \textscr r` R\
ʁ Inverted small capital R \textinvscr
K
R
θ Greek theta *h \texttheta
T
*u T
ʃ Esh \textesh
S
sh S
ʊ Latin upsilon \textupsilon
U
uh U
χ Greek chi *x \textchi
X
*x X
ʒ Latin ezh \textyogh
Z
zh Z
ʔ Glottal stop \textglotstop
P
?. ?
ʕ Reversed glottal stop \textrevglotstop
Q
?( ?\
ʲ Superscript j \textsuperscript{j}
\super j
^^j _j
Superscript N nS \textsuperscript{n}
\super n
^^n _n
○̃ Tilde \~ \~ ~
ʷ Superscript W \textsuperscript{w}
\super w
^^w _w
ː Length mark \textlengthmark
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