Arbitrary IPA Spacing

The first IPA notation is arbitrary phonetic spacing, or A.IPA.S.

A.IPA.S. uses no numbers but rather uses a phonetic transliteration script where each phoneme in the IPA is represented by its own character and accent is indicated by the size of the characters in each syllable. This alphabet is the basis for all other notation scripts. There are around 43 characters divided into two categories: vowels and consonants. The vowel category is slightly more systematic than the consonants, which are extremely arbitrary. A.IPA.S. is usually expressed in its own set of phonetic characters but can also be expressed on the QWERTY keyboard.


The vowels are indicated by two lines. Every vowel starts off this way. There is a third line whose position and angle indicate which vowel is represented; usually pertaining to if the vowel is cardinal. The third line is the arbitrary line. A fourth line indicates whether the vowel is long or short. A line over the top of the symbol is long, while a line underneath turns the vowel short. There are a few exceptions, but this is the general pattern for a vowel notation.


The consonants are unique because they are entirely arbitrary. There are times when a voiced consonant resembles an inverted form of its unvoiced equivalent, but overall, the shape of each consonant is simply the way the sound draws itself in my mind when I hear it pronounced. When I hear the sound, I see a shape. I write that shape, and the shape becomes the new character for that sound.

In general, there is a pretty basic guideline for what characters equal which sounds; however, because the way a phoneme sounds and looks is affected by forces such as the other phonemes around the initial sound, the voice of the person speaking, and intensity of what is said, consonants commonly have an altered character in the written script. I call this “bouncing”. Vowels do this too, but when a vowel bounces, it usually just bounces into the mould for another, already existing vowel. In other words, it simply becomes a different vowel altogether. Consonants don’t just bounce among themselves; sometimes they bounce into each other, fuse into each, or they simply shape-shift in and of the individual phoneme.


The most common phonemes to bounce are the “L” and “R” sounds. The “L” and the “R” leak into each a lot. They steal each other’s places and pair up like Siamese twins. Sometimes that makes it difficult to tell which one is actually being spoken. It’s almost as though they conspire together to form a completely new consonant that is unrecognized in combinatorial grammar and therefore can be thought of as an imposter. The A.IPA.S. Script has solved this problem by a couple different means.

This particular bouncing is common enough that there is a middle character used specifically for bridging the gap between the two sounds: “L” and “R”. Of course, the exact shape and depth of the bounce affect whether the middle character can be used. If it can’t, we can use brackets to show which sound bounced, which direction it bounced, and how far it bounced. The brackets are positioned such that they connect two phonemes to show how they relate to each other and can be used for any phonemes that bounce.


Because it is set up with such a strong dependency on the size of the character and because the charters are a special script, it is very difficult to find a good system for using A.IPA.S. on a computer. The best way to do so would be to use a font editor to design a computerized script and then either forgo the size aspect or use some sort of accent markers. Such a font does exist but is not in use because the inability to adjust the size or notate a bounce is burdensome. When a better font is developed it may be used more frequently, but in the meantime there is a QWERTY system that can be used.

The QWERTY system is annoyingly arbitrary. It roughly follows the pattern of the Roman alphabet except it does divide the vowels from the consonants and uses an unvoiced-voiced key arrangement—sort of. Not really… The vowels are all on the middle row of the keyboard and long vowels are on the same key with their short counterparts. The consonants are on the top and bottom rows with all the top row keys filled but not even the first half of the bottom row keys filled.

The consonants start with the first consonant in the Roman alphabet going on the first key. The first one happens to be voiced. That makes the unvoiced equivalent automatically on the same key. We simply work our way through the Roman alphabet putting the next consonant on the next key with its own voiced or unvoiced equivalent. However, not every consonant has such an equivalent.

The ones that don’t have a counterpart are paired up together even though they are completely different sounds, unrelated to each other, and sometimes both fall on the same side of the vocal cord fence. That is why the A.IPA.S QWERTY system is annoyingly arbitrary.

There is another reason it is annoyingly arbitrary. The bottom row of the keyboard is void except for the first three keys. These three problem keys are “z”, “x”, and “c”. “Z” key contains the phonemes “ch” as in “check” and “sh” as in “shadow”. Both these phonemes have a voice counterpart but they are not paired with them. Instead, they are paired with each other even though they are completely different sounds. To make matters worse, the equivalent for each of these phonemes are also paired with phonemes that they have no relation to. The reason for this is because the characters for the phonemes on key “z” in the transliteration script are identical except for being inverted.

So basically there is a rough pattern to follow for applying A.IPA.S. to the QWERTY but there are enough exceptions to cause confusion. There are seven consonant keys that break the rules, totaling 13 phonemes. There are also two vowel keys that are overly arbitrary which adds 4 more phonemes to the problem.

The pattern is arbitrary to begin with; but when 17 phonemes are not in the right place even according to the pattern, we can say the whole thing is pretty much random. That does not mean it is useless or even a bad system, it just means it will require more memorization than calculation in order to be used. The human mind is designed to work better with arbitrary concepts than it is with strict systematic ones. In other words, your brain would find it easier to learn the arbitrary pattern than the complicated Systematic IPA Numbering or Systematic IPA Spacing notations.


The main issue is simply that it is so arbitrary. There is little to no way of calculating exactly what to notate that will work every time. It is not fool proof. There are exceptions to the rules; the rules themselves cannot be predicted. It is not universal. Phonemes are mismatched and unidentified. Some are even imposters.

The final development of IPA notation will have a set of rules that are predictable, calculable, with no exceptions. It will be similar to the decimal system in mathematics. Once you learn how the system works, you can express and calculate any numeric entity.  It will differentiate between voiced and unvoiced consonants and will pinpoint exactly how the sound was produced.

There is not so much a problem with arbitrary spacing as much as a need to expand and improve the system without doing away with the original. F.W. Boreham said, “Here, then, we have the principle stated as well as it is possible to state it. You must tune from the bass, for the bass is the basis of music. But you must rise from the bass, as a building must rise from its foundations, or the music will be a moan and a monotone; for a building consisting of nothing but the foundation is no building at all.” The arbitrary format is the foundation for a more systematic notation. The foundation is absolutely essential, but a foundation that is not build upon is like music that drags itself out in one long everlasting note.


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