Overview of Visible Speech

For the real details, you probably should read the book and article I scanned (you can get them from the download section), but it wouldn't be the WWW without providing a page explaining the basic workings of the system.


Consonants in VS are x-high: they define the “normal” height of letters by not ascending higher than it, nor do they descend below the baseline. The basic forms are based on curves representing the four main places of articulation: the back of the tongue, the top of the tongue, the tip of the tongue, and the lips (there are others, don't worry. But also remember that phonology is a changing science, and Bell's perception of how sounds are made was not as detailed or as advanced as ours).

[back: <, top: ^, point: v, lip: >]

This is based on an image of a lateral view of the articulating head, viewed facing to the right, as you can see in the diagram in the front of the book. Note that this is opposite of the imagery used by the International Phonetic Alphabet! Symbols like “Advanced Tongue Root” (e̘) and “Retracted Tongue Root” (e̙) clearly symbolize the front of the mouth toward the left, as does the usual drawing of the vowel quadrilateral. Even more annoying is the fact that for some reason, the VS convention seems more natural and easy-to-remember to me. The face-to-the-left one has a long tradition too; even ancient hieroglyphs were usually oriented so it was as though the text that was already written was coming out of the faces of the creatures and people in the pictures. Just deal with it.

Anyway, these “primary” symbols (Sweet calls them “open”) represent, by themselves, mere constriction at the point of articulation. I guess these would properly be voiceless approximants. They're -voice, -nasal, -stop: all unmarked. To get things that are more exciting, you modify the basic shape. The shape of the curve continues to indicate the place of articulation, and the details on it show the type of sound.

[samples of some basic VS consonants]

So in the picture above, the rightmost symbol, which is partially closed by a squiggly line, indicates nasal articulation, and the one next to it, which is closed off with a straight line, indicates a stop. The other symbol, the one divided in the middle, is a little less straightforward. Bell uses it for what he calls, well, “divided” sounds. He says this refers to consonants which have lateral or interstitial apertures for the emission of breath. So, lip-divided would be an IPA /f/. Note that these are still voiceless. Voicing is indicated by a heavy straight line within the curve:

[samples of voiced vs. voiceless consonants]

Bell also has “mixed” curves, which you can see above in the symbols labeled wh, s, th, and sh. He considers these sounds to be primarily formed in one place (e.g. for /wh/, primarily a lip sound), with modification from the opposite one (the back of the tongue, for /wh/). Sweet has a different analysis for these and for the “divided” consonants above.

Bell provides a few symbols for “throat-formed” consonants:

[throat consonants: 'h', 'whisper', 'throat-voice', 'catch or cough']

So I guess the book was serious about being able to transcribe coughs! Though maybe he meant something more like a glottal stop. That pretty much covers it for the true consonants (except for another pair he has for voiced and unvoiced whistle(!), which doesn't seem to be listed in the same place as the rest. It looks the same as the “throat/throat-voice” pair, except turned 90°.)


Vowels contrast visually with the consonants in VS. While consonants are nonascending and nondescending and are basically round and broad in shape, vowels are long and thin and linear, and ascend above the x-height (for high vowels) or descend below the baseline (for low vowels) or do both (for mid-vowels, which Bell refers to as “mixed”). The vowel line has a sort of hook facing to the left (for back vowels) or the right (for front vowels) or both (for central vowels, also seen as “mixed”). Remember Bell's convention for which way the face is facing. The hook is curled into a point (what a typographer would call a “ball terminal”) for so-called primary vowels, and left as an open hook for wide vowels. This distinction at least sometimes matches tongue-root advancement in IPA (e.g. IPA /i/ vs. /ɪ/) or other sorts of tense vs lax articulation. Bell says that wide vowels have an additional expansion of the soft palate, enlarging the back cavity of the mouth. The typographical distinction is not always easy to see, and Sweet cites it as being often criticized, though he himself believes it is sufficient and does not change it. Lip-rounding is indicated by a crossbar through the middle of the vowel.

[vowel examples]

Glides and Modifiers

Bell provides a set of smaller symbols for “glides”, based on his fundamental shapes. Sweet is more systematic and more thorough, introducing a glide (semivowel) form of every vowel, written the same way only smaller (i.e. nondescending and x-high).

[glides and diphthongs]
Only some of Bell's glides, with his examples.

[Bell's table of glides]
His table of glides.

There is also a set of modifiers which can be applied to any sign (some more fitting for vowels and some more fitting for consonants of course). It is notable that these are all full-fledged spacing characters in VS, whereas in IPA many of these functions are handled by combining characters. This is again due (presumably) to considerations of economy: Even with computers, typesetting diacritics is more difficult than stringing spacing characters together. Sweet messed with the representation of a few of these, which he feared were hard to distinguish, but most of them remain.

[Bell's table of Modifiers]
I actually tweaked this slightly, since the scan lost an all-important stroke of the “close” symbol, making it just a slightly diagonal line.

Things like Emission refer to a released stop, as opposed to an unreleased one; Suction was for ingressive sounds, things like clicks (I presume also for glottalic ingressives). The Holder is used to indicate a long vowel, and there two different forms of Side Open in order to permit the distinction between “both sides open” (parallel vertical lines with a block joining them in the middle) and “one sideopen” (somewhat shorter parallel lines with the join only on the bottom). Protruded indicates that the articulation is protruded out to the lip, while Inverted... denotes that the tongue is inverted to the back of the mouth. Seems to be what we would call a retroflex consonant, but that doesn't match with the examples. His example for this is
[point-shut inverted lip-open: a click from the soft palate]

Sweet's Modifications

Henry Sweet tried to expand Visible Speech, making it more general and more consistent, and also more in line with the current understanding of phonology at the time (or at least his own understanding). He introduced several “diacritics” to expand the use of the symbols. So there's one that makes a consonant into a glide of the same formation (I'm not 100% sure I understand how you can have a “glide l” yet). I call them diacritics in scare-quotes because they are fully spacing characters, not combining marks. They just act in a diacritical fashion.

For glides/semivowels made from vowels, Sweet dropped most of Bell's glides and introduced a series of x-high versions of the vowel letters. That is, for every vowel, there's a glide (a non-syllabic vowel) which looks just the same, except it's shorter and doesn't ascend or descend as the vowel does. It's a useful and consistent addition.

Sweet tries to regularize Bell's point-of-articulation based consonant system, with the result that things don't necessarily mean what Bell said they did anymore. Bell played a little fast and loose with his definitions, and consonants don't really quite follow the way they are described by his system. So Sweet made a “teeth” consonant-shape, which is used in two orientations to handle sounds like /f/ () and /θ/ (), with voice-bars for /v/ and /ð/ , of course. He dropped most of Bell's “mixed” consonants, because they mostly didn't make sense anyway, and used more diacritics to indicate such modifications, and many others as well, and also various glides that Bell had not considered.

Similarly, Bell's analysis of the s(h)ibilants was somewhat loose, in order to squeeze them into the oral model he had. Sweet introduced a special symbol for /s/, modified for /z/, and used those two reversed for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ respectively.

Table of Sweet's Modifiers

* Unspecified modifier
+ Simultaneous articulation
Short/normal (sequences of length symbols are possible for extra-long, extra-short, etc.)
Strong syllabic stress (may be written as a dot: ·)
Half-Strong syllabic stress (may be written as a colon: :)
Weak syllabic stress
Glideless transition
] Syllabicity (converts glide to vowel)
) Glide (non-syllabic vowel, etc)
Outgoing airflow (rarely needed, usually implied)
Inward airflow
“Expulsive” articulation, i.e. shut glottis: ejective
Inward non-pulmonic airflow (clicks; implosives are shown with the “throat-stop” modifier)
More open articulation
More closed articulation
Narrow articulation (I guess Sweet really expected half-strong to use the colon form exclusively, otherwise it looks like this is a conflict)
Wider articulation
Inversion (e.g. retroflex?)
Protrusion (to lip)
Back modifier
Front modifier
Point modifier
Lip-back modifier
Back-lip modifier
Blade modifier
Spread (lips)
Unilateral, i.e. Lateral with only one side open
“Throat-stop” modifier, i.e. “simultaneous closure of the glottis”, i.e. glottalic implosive. The “Throat-stop” consonant, i.e. the glottal stop, is .

Whew. Actually it was useful; this whole page will be very helpful in organizing things for including VS in Unicode. Now here come the glides...

Strong breath-glide, i.e. aspirated. Bell's . The true non-fricative unconstricted breath consonant is [].
Weak breath-glide, ordinary aspiration
“Gliding devocalization of a following vowel”, apparently a semivoiced glide, like IPA /ɦ/.
Voiced glide (apparently a schwa-like vowel)
Voiced glide with lip-rounding
Weak or “stressless” voiced glide
Whisper glide. The whisper consonant is [], and the semi-voiced whisper is []. Even Sweet admits that this whole part of the system is quite vague, basically anything produced from the throat.
Plus all the vowels written x-high, as nonsyllabic glides.

Wow. That's probably the most comprehensive treatment of Visible Speech you'll find anywhere. And I think I'm missing a symbol or two (though I see them in my font. The table will have to be done better). Future project for this page: table(s) showing approximate IPA equivalents for VS!