Tip: If you are serious about improving your vocabulary, then Troy and I highly recommend you try the popular vocabulary-building software, Ultimate Vocabulary. Click Ultimate Vocabulary for further information.*
So, what is an orthographic key, I hear you ask? Good question! Orthography is the study of spelling systems and how letters combine to make sounds and words. An orthographic key is the set of symbols and sounds used by English dictionaries to describe how to pronounce each entry word.
Because speaking is an auditory activity, something we say and hear, and reading is a visual activity, it's quite a challenge to represent how something sounds just using written symbols. To this end, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has been developed over more than 100 years. The IPA is used by most English dictionaries to show how to pronounce words (and a word's pronunciation being different from its spelling is a particularly English quirk — other languages are much more obvious!). Apart from using the "regular" letters we're familiar with (like "b" for the "b" sound) it also uses unusual characters to represent combined sounds (for example ɔ = "aw" and θ = "th"). So one IPA symbol represents one sound. Unfortunately some of these aren't intuitive, and just need to be memorised.
To help with this, the orthographic key should be printed along the bottom of every page in a good dictionary, so you can refer to it quickly and easily no matter what page you're on.
This article is our description of what the most commonly seen IPA symbols mean, and how to decipher the orthographic "code" for each word. We have not covered the large number of IPA symbols used for foreign pronunciations, in the interests of brevity. Any dictionary worth its salt will have a full discussion about the IPA symbols it uses (including the rarer ones) in its introductory section. The / / symbols mark the start and end of a spoken word.
NB: these pronunciations are for British or Australian English. We will cover American English in a subsequent article.
First of all, we have the simple vowel sounds. All vowels in English have many ways of being pronounced — there is a "short" version, and a "long" version of the sound, and other variations besides!
|æ||cat (short vowel)||/kæt/|
|a:||arm (long vowel)||/a:m/|
|e||bed (short vowel)||/bed/|
|i:||see (long vowel)||/si:/|
|ə||ago (short vowel||/əgəʊ/|
|ɔ||saw (long vowel)||/sɔ:/|
|ɪ||sit (short vowel)||/sɪt/|
|ɜ||her (long vowel)||/hɜ:/|
|ɒ||hot (short vowel)||/hɒt/|
|u||too (long vowel)||/tu:/|
|ʌ||run (short vowel)||/rʌn/|
|ʊ||put (long vowel)||/pʊt/|
What on earth is a dipthong? Something you wear at the swimming pool?!
No (sadly). A dipthong is simply two vowel sounds spoken or merged together in one syllable. For example, the sound of "ay" in play is a dipthong. Here are all of them:
Consonants are generally a bit easier to represent in orthography.
There are many other IPA symbols that are used to describe sounds from other languages (eg, French and German), but you won't come across them that often in English words. This set of symbols will get you most places when it comes to understanding the pronunciation information in your dictionary.
So now when you come across a word whose spelling is rather weird (and let's face it, that's a large percentage of all English words!), you can use your English dictionary to figure out how to pronounce it. Here are a couple of examples:
pigeon — it looks like it should be pronounced as "pig-ee-on". However, the pronunciation is given in the dictionary as /pɪdʒən/ — which (referring to the charts above) means it's actually pronounced "pij-un".
confession — this words looks like it should be spoken as "con-fess-eye-on". Let's check what the dictionary tells us about how to pronounce it: /kənˈfɛʃən/. So it's actually "con-feshun". (By the way, that little apostrophe mark before the f there just shows the start of the second syllable.)
This Pronunciation Guide, from the Oxford University Press, gives great little cartoons that illustrate the symbols with pictures of the words, and has little audio recordings of each sound (British English). Wikipedia also has sound samples and in-depth information about each symbol and sound. Start at the International Phonetic Alphabet page, and work down from there to each symbol.
You might like to use Ultimate Vocabulary to help learn pronunciations as well. The popular vocabulary-improvement software comes with audio recordings of a real person reading all the words out loud (and not just a computer-generated voice), which makes the pronunciations so much more accurate.
*Troy and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary software because we are happy to endorse that software.