4.6 Importance of Consistent Representation

One of the key practices of transcription is to maintain a consistent representation method for the language. In other words, make sure you use the same writing system -- called an orthography -- in all of your transcriptions. This avoids confusion when comparing different texts to one another. The next page will cover orthographies in more detail.

Some professional linguists will choose to use a standardized phonetic representation that may not be used by native speakers themselves, most commonly the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or the American Phonetic Alphabet (APA). However, these are extremely detailed alphabets used for linguistic research.

The International Phonetic Alphabet is certainly very beneficial for precise phonological transcription, but it is also highly complex and it can take time to learn. It is also often too complicated to use for every-day writing. 

Transcription vs. Translation

It is important to understand the distinction between transcription and translation. While both are exceedingly valuable for language documentation, they both serve extremely different purposes. Translation, on the other hand, is the interpretation of meaning from one language to another language. You will still want to provide translations for your transcription. Ideally, you can provide more literal, word-for-word, or morpheme-for-morpheme translations as well as general translations of the meaning into English. A morpheme is like a sub-part of a word; a chunk that still carries meaning but is a part of the larger whole.

For example, this excerpt from the translated and transcribed stories told by Benjamin Brooks, a speaker of the Micmac language spoken around modern-day Nova Scotia, taken from Micmac Texts (DeBlois, 1990):

screenshot of transcription and translation of Mikmaq

Image of a Micmac sentence alongside an English translation, an English morpheme-by-morpheme translation, and a transcription using one of the accepted Micmac orthographies.

Other examples of standardized transcription are Pinyin for Chinese languages and Romaji for Japanese. However, some other linguists choose to transcribe in the accepted orthography for the language they are documenting. Some linguists choose to use both -- a standardized representation that is known by other scholars, as well as the languages, accepted orthographies.


DeBlois, Albert D. 1990. Micmac Texts. Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.