I am writing a document with XeLaTeX in which I use IPA characters in italicized text. After trying a few fonts with extensive IPA support like Gentium Plus, Brill or Charis SIL, I encounter the same problem: the vowels a and ɑ are given the same character in italics, even though they are differentiated in plain text.

While not a tragedy, this is both quite shocking and a little troubling. I assume that a number of people will also have come across this issue.

Is there a straightforward way in TeX to get actually different italic shapes for the two characters?

-- Edit for clarification:

One would think that losing the distinction between two characters is grave enough in and of itself. Still, it does have actual implications: you become completely unable to capture the distinction between words like 'Sam' /sam/ and 'psalm' /sɑm/ (in some English varieties).

Let's see it in action in a French gloss to realize that this can indeed be a big issue:

Le chien a mis sa patte dans ma pâte.    
/lə ʃjɛ̃ a mi sa pat dã ma pɑt/    
the dog has put its paw in my dough    
"The dog put its paw in my dough."

In italicized text (for many reasons: an italicized line in glosses, a transcribed word quoted in italics, etc.), because of the problem reported in this post the /pat/ - /pɑt/ distinction is completely lost.

closed as off-topic by Sverre, user13907, Svend Tveskæg, lockstep, Johannes_B Mar 17 '15 at 16:41

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not fall within the scope of TeX, LaTeX or related typesetting systems as defined in the help center." – Sverre, Community, Svend Tveskæg, lockstep, Johannes_B
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    I think this is an extremely shocking issue, since the two symbols represent two different vowels. I had the same problem but unfortunately I'm afraid there is no straightforward solution. I opted not to use italics in transcriptions, but boldface or underline... Not the optimal solution at all... – Stefano Mar 17 '15 at 12:27
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    @Sverre Whilst I think I agree with you that IPA transcriptions shouldn't be italicised, there's the matter of representing certain forms in the running text, which is standardly done by using italics. – Pavel Rudnev Mar 17 '15 at 14:01
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    @Sverre I agree that you should neither italicise IPA transcriptions nor try and pass non-existent forms off as existing written forms. Nevertheless there are languages whose orthographies heavily rely on characters from the IPA. One example of such a language would be Mbembe, which also happens to encode the a - ɑ distinction in writing. See p. 12 of this spelling guide. – Pavel Rudnev Mar 17 '15 at 14:34
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    there are certain other possible instances where italic ipa is desirable: if a journal style specifies italic section headings, it would be appropriate to use italic ipa forms if a transcription makes sense in the heading text. i thought some of the sil fonts did provide these shapes, for just that reason. – barbara beeton Mar 17 '15 at 15:25
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    @Sverre Quick note: the glyph shaped like Greek alpha (used in African orthographies) and the glyph shaped like lowercase script A (used in IPA) do in fact share the same Unicode character. – hftf Mar 17 '15 at 16:01

I recommend the well-equipped-for-linguistics Brill font with Stylistic Set 20 (SS20) enabled:


\begin{tabular}{l l}
upright       &                                           a ɑ \\
italic        &                                  \itshape a ɑ \\
italic + SS20 & \addfontfeature{StylisticSet=20} \itshape a ɑ \\

Note that the SS20 option also changes the shapes of several other characters (in particular, β θ λ χ a f g) to suit linguistic documents.

To see it in action, take a look at this TikZ/PGF linguistics vowel chart typeset in Brill.

I do still concur with the other users in discouraging IPA set in italics, even (as mentioned in a comment above) in headings.

  • 1
    This would also be a great solution for a language like Mbembe, as mentioned by @PavelRudnev in a comment. But as you also say, highly unrecommended for IPA transcriptions. – Sverre Mar 17 '15 at 15:36
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    @BernatBardagil That case you link to should have had the constituent within brackets [] in an upright font. Just because someone once made a poor choice in a document doesn't mean you should too. – Sverre Mar 17 '15 at 15:41
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    Though I agree with @Sverre above me, Brill is still an ideal font for linguistic (and other specialist) documents, and looks great even when making questionable typographical choices. – hftf Mar 17 '15 at 15:46
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    @hftf's solution also works with the SIL fonts, only it's the ss05 set rather than Brill's ss20. – Pavel Rudnev Mar 17 '15 at 15:58
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    Is this the style guide for the same IJAL? – hftf Mar 20 '15 at 12:19

The straightforward solution would be to use a font that has italic shapes for both a and ɑ. LinuxLibertine and Junicode both seem to do the job.

  • 1
    They're slightly different in Linux Libertine, but I think one would have great difficulties telling one from the other unless they are put right next to each other. – Sverre Mar 17 '15 at 15:03
  • It's a reason for optimism that some fonts actually provide italic forms for these two characters. Sadly that limits one's options quite a bit, but at least we do have some. – Bernat Bardagil Mar 17 '15 at 15:05

I don't agree that this is a problem or an issue, and it's definitely not shocking. Almost all roman fonts will change the character a to an ɑ when it's given in italics, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italic_type#Examples.

Since you put IPA in the title and tagged it with linguistics, could you please add an example from linguistics and IPA transcriptions where the difference between an italic a and an italic ɑ is meaningful?

The simplest solution would be to slant the upright font. I wouldn't recommend doing it, of course -- not because it fails to fix your problem, but because it looks weird to see an a in italicized text, and because you shouldn't ever italicize IPA transcriptions in the first place.

    SlantedFont={Gentium Plus}, % use upright font as slanted font
    SlantedFeatures={FakeSlant=0.15} % slant the upright font when used as slanted font
    ]{Gentium Plus}
\textit{aɑ} \textsl{aɑ} 

enter image description here

  • I have added a clarification. I do agree with you though that the slanted a option is not an ideal solution. – Bernat Bardagil Mar 17 '15 at 13:53
  • @BernatBardagil But why doesn't my proposed solution fix your problem? I didn't say that slanting the a is a sub-optimal solution for your problem, what I meant was that I wouldn't recommend using an upright a in italic text. But that's what you want to do, so I provided a solution for you. – Sverre Mar 17 '15 at 13:55
  • There are dozens of cases in which someone will present and manipulate written linguistic data without the interference of a spelling system (and run into situations in which using italics will be required). The problem is that fonts that are meant to support IPA characters fail to do so in something as ordinary as italicized text. I am just shocked that this should be blatantly overlooked by fonts that otherwise do provide italicized versions of IPA-specific characters. – Bernat Bardagil Mar 17 '15 at 14:06
  • @BernatBardagil I still don't understand why my proposed solution doesn't fix your problem. Please explain how it fails, and then revise your original question accordingly to make it clearer. Also: (1) a isn't an "IPA-specific character". Most fonts will follow the standard and the tradition of italicizing it as an ɑ. (2) If people "manipulate" IPA transcriptions of a language to pretend they're writing the language and not transcribing it, then they're abusing the purpose of the IPA. I don't find it shocking that most fonts ignore that approach. – Sverre Mar 17 '15 at 14:15
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    I suppose that you don't see it as something meaningful beyond IPA. The thing is, it's as simple as this: we can manage to keep the ɔ - o distinction in italics in fonts with a broad enough support. Why do we seem doomed to lose the a - ɑ distinction in the exact same context? – Bernat Bardagil Mar 17 '15 at 14:32

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