Musical tablature notation typically ‘directed the player what to do with his fingers than what notes to play’ (Scholes, 1970: 1004, original italics). In this paper, parallels are drawn between tablature notation and the symbolisation of consonants and vowels on the IPA chart by pointing out that they denote what speakers do with their lips and tongues, not what sounds they make. It is argued that while these parallels have probably always been present in phonetic notation, they became definitive when the International Phonetic Association revised its principles after the Kiel Convention in 1989.
The effect of the new second principle is to circumscribe the relationship between a speech sound and the symbol representing it, limiting that relationship to one which is much more theoretically-defined and physiologically based where the importance of ostensive definition and experiential knowledge of sound is relegated. As a consequence, what an IPA symbol represents is by definition a specification of what a speaker does, not the sound that is made. This specification is more direct with regard to place of articulation than with regard to manner of articulation. There is an iconic element to the notation as well, which is greater in the case of the vowel chart than the consonant chart. The implications of defining symbols as intersections of articulatory categories are, it is claimed, disadvantageous to the practice of impressionistic phonetic transcription unless it is explicitly acknowledged that a symbol can be used without independent evidence that the articulatory configuration it purports to denote was the one responsible for producing the sound-as-heard. The paper concludes with the suggestion that the second of the seven current principles of the Association may need to be revised so that impressionistic transcription does not have to be carried out using IPA symbols in ways at variance with their definitions. Phoneticians engaged in impressionistic transcription want to be able to acknowledge the IPA as their principal resource without feeling they are deviating from IPA official policy.