Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
To learn how the International Phonetic Alphabet is used to communicate the sounds
of words in different languages.
- copy of the "Sound Communication" student handout
- copy of the "Forming Sounds" student handout
- copy of the "IPA Symbols and Sounds" student handout
The parchments discovered in the Judean Desert's Cave of Letters were written
in two languages, Aramaic and Greek. Scientists who study language, known as
linguists, can communicate about different languages using the International
Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a set of symbols that provides a universal way to
communicate the sounds of words. In this activity, students will learn some of
the symbols and sounds of the IPA.
Write the following words on the board and ask students to pronounce
Students might try to pronounce some or all of the J words with a hard "j"
sound. Note to students that this demonstrates that the same letter can sound
differently both within—and among—different languages. Using the
IPA, linguists can communicate with each other about language based on the
approximate sounds of words.
Organize students into teams and provide each team with a set of
Tell students that humans are able to speak, in part, because they have
evolved the anatomy to verbalize words. Review with students the parts of the
vocal tract diagram on the "Forming Sounds" handout. To help students
understand how some sounds are formed, have them pronounce the consonants and
vowels listed on the handout that includes the vocal tract illustration (note
that this only represents a few of the consonants and vowels in the IPA). Tell
students many other sounds are created using different parts of the oral
cavity. For a full tutorial on these sounds, have students visit the
International Phonetic Alphabet for Teens Web site at
Once students have investigated how some consonants are formed, have them
work in their teams to review the chart on their "IPA Symbols and Sounds"
handout. Have students speak the sample words to hear the sound represented by
After students have studied the chart, have them attempt to decode some of
the words into English and then encode some English words using the IPA.
Finally, have them try to encode the sentences using the IPA. Remind them to
add a stress mark (`) before the stressed syllable for words with more than one
syllable and to add slash marks (/) at the beginning and end of words or
sentences. Help them decode words they are having trouble with. Make sure
students are concentrating on sounds, not on how the words might be pronounced
based on how they are spelled.
To conclude the lesson, discuss with students why it is important to study
language, including ancient languages. What can be learned by studying a
culture's language? (Language provides an important way to communicate.
Studying a culture's language can shed light on how traditions get passed down
and how ideas are exchanged. How languages are formed and used also helps
scientists better understand brain cognition.)
As an extension, have students research how languages evolved and how many
languages are currently spoken worldwide. Find an interactive U.S. Census-based
map that shows the density of U.S. speakers of 37 languages and language groups
IPA is based on the Roman alphabet. The IPA used in this activity pertains to
Standard American English sounds; other language-specific IPAs contain symbols
not used in the American English IPA. Although dictionary transcription symbols
may be similar to IPA symbols, dictionaries of ten develop their own
When translating words using the IPA, students may have trouble getting the
correct symbols for the words bath and them. If this is the case,
point out to students that the "th" sound in bath is pronounced with the
breath only, while the voice is used to pronounce the "th" sound in
Students may also have trouble differentiating
from , which sound
similar. The difference is that the ,
known as a schwa, is used when
the all parts of the vocal system—tongue, lips, etc—are relaxed
(schwa means rest), while the involves slightly raising just the center of
the tongue. In addition, the schwa of ten occurs in unstressed syllables, while
the occurs only in stressed syllables. The is basically a more forceful
version of the schwa. The schwa appears frequently in the English language;
some students may recall seeing it in dictionaries. Some additional examples
that contain the are the, Russia, and
Capitalization should not be used because a capital letter could potentially be
mistaken for a different IPA sound. Punctuation, however, is fine.
NOVA Web Site—Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
Find articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources in this
companion Web site to the program.
Cave of Letters Map
Shows a map of each chamber of the cave.
How Language Works
Presents an introduction to the study of linguistics and considers the meaning
of words and how they are formed.
Links to English, German, French, and Spanish phonetic alphabets, and provides
recordings of sounds and sounds in words.
Learn about what a career in linguistics involves, including some of the
Freund, Richard A.
Secrets of the Cave of Letters: Rediscovering a Dead Sea Mystery.
Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004.
Reviews the history of the Cave of Letters, including the story of the woman
named Babatha, whose cache of letters was found in the cave.
The "Sound Communication" activity aligns with the following
National Science Education Standards:
Science Standard C:
Diversity and adaptation of organisms:
Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological
adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in
populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors,
or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular
Science Standard C:
Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions of
(1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic
variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a
finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuing selection
by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave offspring.
Classroom Activity Author
by WGBH Educational Outreach staff.