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The International Phonetic Alphabet

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours
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Singers often have to learn a whole new set of IPA symbols when they’re learning a piece in a new language.

Professional opera singers often have to sing in languages with which they’re completely unfamiliar. And yet they’re expected to pronounce all the words correctly. How do they do it? Well, they certainly can, and do, work with coaches who are native speakers, but most often they start by studying the foreign words with something called the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, for short. The IPA was invented in the late 1880s by a group of English and French language teachers, or “phoneticians,” and it consists of the standard letters of the Latin alphabet, modified versions of those letters, symbols and accents that are called diacritics, or diacritical markings, which are used in conjunction with the letters, and other signs and markings. If it sounds complicated, it is, and singers often have to learn a whole new set of IPA symbols when they’re learning a piece in a new language. But the IPA is remarkably versatile, and incredibly useful.

A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.