General Linguistics > FAQ Discussion

Typing phonetic symbols


Typing phonetic symbols can be difficult because there are not usually special keyboards for this, but it is important to be able to accurately transcribe speech when typing a paper or doing a homework assignment. There are some easy solutions to this:

1. Find a website-based "keyboard".
This works best for the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) because most of the websites support this specifically.
One of my favorites is an actual IPA chart, best for anyone familiar with the chart:
Another that may be better for beginners if you just want to look up "similar looking" letters: (Click "show all" to see the full IPA list.)

2. Search through available characters on your computer.
For example, Macs have a "Character Viewer" (available through the international menu, which can be turned on via System Preferences), and MS Word has a "Symbol Browser" (Insert>Symbol).
These can be a bit slow, but if you're looking for just one specific symbol, they might be the right choice.

3. In some cases, you may not easily find what you're looking for.
A reasonable option then is to search for it. Try to think of the phonetics terminology for it (such as "palatal fricative" or "mid vowel") and then search for it online. Wikipedia is often a good place to find these, especially for non-standard symbols.
You can also add the term "unicode" to your search, which will narrow it down to just information about symbols (in most cases) and include the full range of unicode (which is an international standard for characters, and includes many for lots of different languages).
Another trick is to look on Wikipedia for any language that uses that symbol (look at the "orthography" or "alphabet" pages in particular if they exist).

4. Diacritics can be a problem, especially if you need multiple on one letter.
In this case, the "character viewer" options (see #2 above) can be the best. What you specifically need is a "combining diacritic", so you might search for, for example, "combining acute accent".
I've had the best luck using the less common diacritic first (often a special character already combined with the main letter) then adding the combining diacritic on top of that.

5. You can also look into remapping your keyboard if you plan to do this often. You may want to do it yourself (with your own design) for what is most convenient and the symbols you most often use. (It's going to be difficult to fit the entire IPA on there, so pick what you need first.)
Remember, you can actually use different languages on your own keyboard within your operating system's preferences (in the international menu on a Mac, and there are similar options on a PC). So if you just need to type accents and ñ's in Spanish, for example, you can do that without remapping your keyboard yourself.
(On a Mac I recommend the U.S. Extended keyboard, or some international equivalent, because it allows you to type in basically any European language by holding the alt key and pressing certain letters. For a preview, check out the "keyboard viewer".)
If you do want to try remapping your keyboard yourself, check out Ukelele:
(I have attempted to create a full IPA keyboard with Ukelele, but it's a little challenging to use. Contact me if you're interested in testing it out.)
In fact, if you're on a Mac just holding down a letter in any of the newest versions of OSX (since Lion) will pop up a menu of characters you can choose from. But generally speaking they're only the ones used in European languages, not the full set of phonetic symbols you might need.

For Windows, Keyboard Layout Creator is a free tool to create keyboard layouts:
Version 1.4 for XP, 2003, Vista, 7, 8:
Version 1.3 for 2000, XP:
There are plenty of paid programs that offer far more in terms of usability and functions compared to the KLC, but they can be rather expensive.

6. One specific problem can be working with the traditional transcription style used for Historical Lingusitics and Philology. These are still used today in the field, even though there are now other standards (like IPA). A few of these are simply hard to find. For that reason I'll make a list here of the characters you might encounter:
š č ǰ ç ḫ
ð Ð þ Þ
ṣ ẓ ṭ ḍ ṛ ḷ ṇ ṃ ḥ
(Just cut and paste into your document. Make sure the font matches the rest of your text, though.)

Personally, I use a Mac with the "U.S. Extended" keyboard, meaning I can type most characters I need (mostly for European languages). For IPA, I use the IPA-chart keyboard site linked above, and for other symbols I may look them up on Wikipedia (and save a list for quick reference) or use the character viewer.

Note 1: Remember to always use Unicode (or "UTF8") encoding for your documents. This will usually preserve the characters, but not always. To be more confident they will arrive to your instructor or elsewhere by email as you see them, you should send a PDF.

Note 2: When you're cutting and pasting from a webpage, it can bring the font and color along with it. So use your editors "paste as plain text" option (usually in the Edit menu) or paste first into a plain text (.txt) document (as in Notepad or a plain-text file in TextEdit ['edit>make plain text']) or other window, like the "search" input in your browser-- then just cut and paste again, and the formatting will be removed. Or, if you prefer, you can reformat your whole document after you type it, but that can be misleading if you are paying attention to the formatting while you write.

Note 3: On the forum, we actually have a phonetic symbol input popup for your use while posting:!-%28instructions%29/
You could use that if you'd like for other things as well, just cut and paste into your document.

Keyboard Layout Creator is a free tool for Windows to create keyboard layouts:

Version 1.4 (XP, 2003, Vista, 7, 8):
Version 1.3 (2000, XP):

There are plenty of paid programs that offer far more in terms of usability and functions compared to the KLC, but they can be rather expensive.

Thanks. I'll add that information above.


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