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Department of Linguistics


Phonetic Fonts: IPA and Internet Browsers

Robert Mannell, 2012

Microsoft has been quite inconsistent in providing support for Unicode. Its support has been phased in very slowly. For example, Powerpoint XP defaults to Microsoft's Arial font for Unicode characters (those outside the ASCII character set) and you can't change that font no matter how hard you try. Only that font can be selected when certain Unicode characters are used in a document and this font doesn't have accurate glyphs for certain phonetic characters (eg. the IPA symbol for the vowel in "hid"). One of the problems, for IPA users, is that Microsoft tends to target particular languages rather than the whole of Unicode and does not support IPA characters in an adequate manner as the IPA range does not coincide with the Unicode range for speakers of any Microsoft supported language (these support choices are presumably market driven). In Internet Explorer it's necessary to explicitly turn on each language you want to display, and the IPA is not an option.

Internet Explorer (Version 7 and earlier) had serious problems displaying some IPA characters. In Internet Explorer 7, for example, the IPA length character is not properly rendered and is displayed with an apparent space on either side of the character. In the following image the sequence "oo:oo" (where ":" is intended as the IPA character) is shown as it displays on Internet Explorer 7 (left image) and on Firefox 3 (right image).

Internet Explorer 7
Firefox 3

This spacing of the IPA length character (a very commonly used character) is extremely disruptive to the visual display of phonetic text. Before I realised that this was a problem I wondered why some students were doing strange things with the spacing of this character in their transcription and phonology assignments.

Internet Explorer (version 7 and earlier) also seems to display many of the IPA characters less clearly than Firefox. IE can be difficult to set up so that it displays IPA. IE sometimes substitutes fonts when trying to display IPA, particularly displaying Microsoft's version of the Arial font. An example of font substitution can be seen in the above diagram. If you look closely, you will see that the length diacritic displayed on Internet Explorer is not identical to the length diacritic displayed on Firefox (Firefox is displaying the character using Charis SIL, as requested in the HTML file). Internet Explorer has clearly substuted a similar character from another font (and note that this occurred on a computer with Charis SIL installed and that this copy of Internet Explorer was able to display other Charis SIL phonetic characters without any problem).

The sequence below will help you determine whether your browser has the problem shown in the image, immediately above. The font size, below, is very much smaller than the image above. Please ignore the difference in character size between the test sequence below and the image above. What you are looking for is whether the sequence is displayed with intervening spaces (an error) or without intervening spaces (displays as intended).


Recent tests (February 2012) have indicated that Internet Explorer 8 (and presumably later versions) does not have these problems. Also, current versions of Firefox continue to reliably display the phonetic font.

Which Browsers Have Problems with Unicode IPA?

Internet Explorer 7 (and earlier) has significant problems displaying IPA Unicode. Do not use any version of Internet Explorer earlier than version 8 to view these pages. If you have Internet Explorer ersion 7 or earlier we strongly suggest that you upgrade to the mast recent version.

Don't use Internet Explorer (version 7 or earlier) for displaying these web pages

Which Browsers Don't Have Problems with Unicode IPA?

Firefox works fine for viewing this site and is highly recommended for students with a Windows computer. You don't need to make it your default browser but you do need to use it for this site. Most likely, Safari will also display IPA characters accurately on Windows, but I haven't tested this yet.

Internet Explorer version 8 and later version display the phonetic font reliably.

For Macintosh users, the Apple browser Safari is recommended, but you can also install Firefox and use it if you wish. Macintosh users should also not use Internet Explorer (version 7 or earlier). If you have a Macintosh running a recent version of Mac OS X then you will already have Safari installed. It's also possible to download and install Safari for Windows (you can find it on Apple's web site).

I haven't tested Opera, Google Chrome or any of the other browsers, so I can't comment on them.

Use Firefox (any recent version)

Use Internet Explorer (version 8 or later)

To download and install Firefox, click on the following link:-

Download and Install Firefox

Text-Only Browsing

Obviously Lynx, a text-only browser, will have significant problems with this site. I don't know if it will display Unicode characters.

Accessibility for People with Vision Impairment

Screen readers such as Jaws, which turn text into speech, will not be able to make any sense of phonetic characters unless trained to (a) identify them and (b) to spell them out by character name. A graduate student of this Department (Stephen) has been able to train Jaws to read out phonetic characters by name, but unfortunately at present this solution isn't more generally available. In any case it does require the user to memorise the names of all of the relevant phonetic characters and to associate each IPA character name with a particular speech sound. This has permitted Stephen to learn to do phonetic transcription even though he can't see the phonetic characters.