What’s with the brackets?

Top things linguists love: #owning prescriptivists. Categorizing stuff. Trading linguistics facts like baseball cards. Baby-talking to infants: “awwww, you can still distinguish every human phoneme can’t you, you’re so cuuute”. Brackets.

But for us writers-turned-conlangers, brackets can be endlessly confusing. When you start reading linguistics and conlang grammars, you’ll see these brackets getting thrown around, but nobody will define why they use the brackets they use. In this post: descriptions and mnemonics for the punctuation that just wants to give good hugs.

As a beginner, I used my brackets willy-nilly.  Brackets looked professional so I just figured they should be there. But linguistics brackets have very specific, defined meanings. When you see them around an IPA letter, they’re giving you information about the kind of symbol you’re looking at:

  • /x/ – represents phonemic-level transcription. This essentially means sounds as they’re held in your brain, and contrasts with sounds as they’re pronounced.

    Think of the word “ladder”. How do you think it should be said? Odds are good when you actually say it you say something in that D-slot that’s…not actually D. Or T. If you really put your mind to saying “ladder” with a D or T you’ll hopefully be able to hear the difference. That sound is actually a completely different R-like sound called an alveolar flap, which we represent in IPA as ɾ. ladder is the phonemic word, but laɾer is the phonetic word.

  • [x] – its counterpart, representing phonetic-level transcription.

    I always had a hard time remembering this until I started thinking of the square brackets as chomping teeth, like the sound is literally in your mouth. Om nom nom. (And teeth begins with t so you can remember it’s phone-t-ic.)

  • <x>- This represents literal letters. In this case, the letter X. <– That letter. Not a sound, not a thing in your mind, but just the humble letter. So for instance, you can say, the IPA letter /j/ is represented in English by <y>.

    We call these graphemes. Think of it as the triangular tip of a pen that writes out the letter.

  • (x) – In variationist sociolinguistics, grandpappy William Labov used this to symbolize a variable. That’s a part of a language where two or more different options can be used by speakers. So for instance, we sometimes say “having” and sometimes say “havin’“, and we might then call this a new variable, the (ng) variable.

    This is a bonus round–I don’t see a lot of sociolinguistic notation among conlangers. But maybe we could start a movement?

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