Phonetic symbols (part 1): reading


As an English Studies student, I've taken several courses which dealt with phonetics (Spoken English, English Phonetics, English Phonology, and some others). In these courses, I had to read and write IPA symbols. This series focuses on this topic. I will explain the alternatives and tools blind people have, along with their advantages and inconvenients. Our first part deals with reading the symbols. So, let's get started!

Speech synthesizers

First, as these symbols are not available in every speech synthesizer, we must choose which one to use. If we are on Mac OSX or iOS, thanks to the terrific support of Unicode symbols that Apple has built into the speech synthesizer, we are good to go. If I remember correctly, there are some symbols where the speech goes silent (they have no description), but apart from that, in general the situation is better than with any other synthesizer. If we are on Windows, we have several options:

  • Eloquence: With JAWS and the illegal NVDA addon, the situation is really bad. Most symbols produce absolutely no output.
  • Espeak or Espeak NG: Comes integrated in NVDA. Includes most symbols, and if a symbol with no associated description is found, the Unicode value is said instead. In my opinion, the best alternative for Windows, despite its robotic sounding voice.

I have no experience with other synthesizers or opeating systems. In Linux, I assume the default situation is the same as in Windows with Espeak, as Orca uses that synthesizer by default.

Despite what I said above, if you still want to use your preferred synthesizer (Eloquence, SAPI, etc.) and the IPA symbols are not supported, you could make your preferred screen reader to interpret these symbols for you (at least in Windows), by using a dictionary or a symbol table. I've found two guides for JAWS, which include already made symbol tables ([1], [2]). I don't use JAWS regularly, so I don't know how well they work, or how updated they are for new (or old) JAWS versions.


I don't know much about how screen readers behave when rendering these symbols in Braille. I know that both NVDA and JAWS don't display them correctly, but they offer facilities to include Braille tables. The links above include Braille tables for JAWS, but if you use a different Braille code for phonetic symbols (as Spanish speakers do) you are out of luck. I know that Fonos, a program to write phonetic symbols in Spanish which is included in Uni2Bra, includes a jbt file which uses the Spanish Braille code. I will talk about this program in another post.

Regarding NVDA, I know that there exists a way to convert JBT files into NVDA compatible ones. I will investigate this and update this post when I find something.

Actually finding the symbols

Wikipedia is a great resource for IPA. It contains descriptions of all symbols, with sample sound files. However, their IPA chart is not accessible regarding vowels, as it is not put in a table. This is also the case with the official IPA chart. This chart includes an accessible version, with a link to a pdf with the Unicode values associated with the symbols (disclaimer: I made the accessible chart, based on the regular one). This is another resource for IPA and Unicode numbers.

When all of this fails

When all of this fails, things are out of your control. Pdf files are famous for making reading these symbols somewhat difficult, for some reason. However, it might be the case that the symbols used are old, non-Unicode symbols. If this is the case, and if these symbols are in a Word or Powerpoint file, copying these symbols from Powerpoint to Word might halfly solve your problem, rendering legible pseudo-IPA symbols (I instead of ɪ, for example), instead of weird symbols. This is more common if the font used in the file is IPA-SAM. I don't know why this happens.

And we've reached the end of today's post. I hope you've enjoyed it. If you have comments or questions, just drop them here, or contact me. Thanks for reading!

Review of Offcloud and Rclone


A couple of months ago, as my ~640GB (~598 GiB) external drive stopped working, I decided to buy some space in the cloud. After several days of investigation, I decided to purchase the premium package on Onedrive (1TiB for 69€/year). After doing this, soon I realised that an external drive was better because of my internet speed (I have a ~3Mb download speed and ~1Mb upload speed). But, seeing as my external drive had stopped working because I dropped it to the floor by accident, I didn't want to buy one. So, what were my options? Was there a service which allowed me to download things directly to the cloud?


Offcloud is a service which lets you do three things:

  • Download things using it as a proxy ("Instant downloading)";
  • Save things temporarily in its cloud ("Cloud backup"); and
  • Download things to one of your storage cloud services (Dropbox, Onedrive, Google Drive...) or through FTP or WebDAV ("Remote upload").

But wait, let's be more specific about these "things". These include:

  • Direct links and webpages (webpages can be downloaded as html or pdf)
  • Videos and files from several cloud storage services (both free and paid) (list of supported sites)
  • Torrent files and magnet links
  • .nzb files

The system is pretty simple. You paste a link or upload a torrent or .nzb file, choose your download method, and wait until it finishes. Then, you can delete the entry (and file, if it's in Offcloud's cloud), or re-download it somewhere else. It lets you download three links for free per month. If that's not enough for you, you can purchase unlimited links for a month or for a year, or purchase just some links. It has an API which lets you add links to it from other applications, it has plugins for download managers and browsers, and it works with IFTTT and Zapier. And of course, the downloads to its cloud or to your cloud storage service work even if you turn off your computer.

Sign up to Offcloud (non-ref)

So, this is great. Now I can upload things directly to my cloud, at a much faster speed than using my home connection. But my computer space is quite limited (I have a ~103GiB SSD), so I cannot download many files there if I need to transfer them to, say, a thumb drive. Luckily, there is a piece of software for solving that, too.


Rclone lets you manage your cloud services without needing to synchronize them to your hard drive, or to open a browser. This includes:

  • Transferring files and folders between cloud services, or between a service's directories;
  • Transferring files and folders between your computer (or any device connected to it) and the cloud;
  • Renaming and deleting files from the cloud without downloading anything; and
  • Accessing a cloud drive via http, WebDAV or Fuse.

It lets you apply filters for managing files or folders, so you don't need to remember long names (I use them exclusively for this), or to filter based on other criteria. It is used from the command line, and it's available for Windows, Linux and Mac. And it's free and open source.


This is the setup I use now: I download one or more files using Offcloud to Onedrive, and then copy it to a USB thumb drive (which, you will agree, is much less prone to fall) using Rclone. And, in the meantime, I save disk space and bandwidth.

Syntax trees for blind people


As I study English Philology, I have to take a course called English Grammar. In this course, I need, among other things, to analise sentences, and make syntax trees of them. Yes, those trees where you disect a sentence into phrases. But how do I, a completely blind person, do it? Images and arrows are inaccessible for me, and the Arboreal and ArborWin fonts, although I haven't tested them, seem to be inaccessible too. Here, I'll show the method I use.

How I do it

To draw a tree, I use Excel spreadsheets. To draw a node (an item of a tree) which has two branches, I use a merged cell, which splits into two cells below it. Then, if one of the cells has further branches, I do the same thing.

With this procedure, I can draw a tree with an arbitrary depth, and an arbitrary number of branches by node (although normally I work with two branches per node for this kind of tree). I think that with this system trees are easy to draw, or at least, easier than other systems I have tried. Visually, it works too, which is a plus.

Why I don't use brackets

I don't use them because trees can get really complex. I don't know if linguists use them for large trees, but I think that, in trees with brackets, fixing mistakes is harder than in my system. But, if you don't know how to use spreadsheets, or simply you want a more conventional system, this one may work for you.

Other systems

Of course, the possibilities are endless. If these systems don't convince you, and if you reach an agreement with your instructor (or your student), you may invent a system of your own. Also, if you are a better programmer than me, you may use something like nested dictionaries in YAML1 or the Natural Language ToolKit.


I hope you have found this post helpful and informative. If you have any comments, send me an e-mail or contact me through Twitter. At the time of writing, I haven't added the possibility to post comments yet, but if it's available when you read this, and if you prefer a more public comunication, post a comment. Also, contact me if you have any doubts, and I'll try to answer your questions. Thanks for reading!

  1. I used YAML (although without any programming involved), and although it worked, I found it too space-consumming. 

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