Aspiration details of stop sounds
The amount of "puff" we give to stop sounds matters!
Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 114th episode.
We've put a new Introduction to Stops lesson up on Pronuncian, and, since a little extra explanation never hurts, I thought I'd cover some of the subtle details of it. If you've been listening to these podcasts for a while, you probably already know that stop sounds are consonant sounds that require the air to be completely stopped at the beginning of the sound. You probably also know that they all occur in voiced/unvoiced pairs.
You get bonus points if you can name all six stops sounds right now? I'll gave you a few seconds to think about it...
How many did you get? You probably got the t sound and d sound, since I talk about them so much, and maybe the p sound and b sound, since we recently compared them to the v sound and f sound. Did you also remember the k sound and g sound? If so, great job.
Here they are again:
t sound/d sound (t sound, d sound)
p sound/b sound (p sound, b sound)
k sound/g sound (k sound, g sound)
There are three details of those sounds that I want you to be aware of, although we're only going to explain two of them today.
1. The aspiration (that's the puff of air as the stop is released) is greater for unvoiced sounds than voiced sounds.
2. The aspiration is greatest at the beginning of words and the beginning of stressed syllables.
3. The duration of vowel sounds before voiced stops is greater than the duration of a vowel before an unvoiced stop.
First, let's talk about the difference in aspiration between voiced and unvoiced stops. This actually matters for listener comprehension. It seems like such a trivial fact, but actually, it is rather important. If your listeners ever heard a voiced sound (the d sound, b sound, or g sound) when you were saying an unvoiced sound (the t sound, p sound or k sound), it may have been because you were not releasing the unvoiced sound with enough puff of air. We expect that puff, and if it isn't there, we might interpret a different sound.
Listen to the difference in the following minimal pairs. I'm going to say two pairs for each set of voiced/unvoiced set. I'll say the word with the unvoiced sound (that's the word with more puff) first, then the word with the voiced sound. Listen carefully:
Could you hear the difference? The first word of each pair had more of a puff of air. That's because it was an unvoiced sound. I'll say each pair again, and give you time to repeat after me:
Now let's talk about point number 2, The aspiration (again that's the "puff") is greatest at the beginning of words and the beginning of stressed syllables. This means that in the middle of a word, syllable stress is important for knowing how to correctly aspirate a stop sound. We're going to use heteronyms to help hear the difference with these sounds. Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently. These are all 2-syllable heteronyms. If the word is stressed on the first syllable, the word is usually a noun or adjective. If it's stressed on the second syllable, it is probably a verb.
Let's play with the words spelled r-e-c-o-r-d. The verb version is reCORD, with the second syllable stressed. An example sentence would be, "I record podcasts almost every week." Listen the the amount of aspiration of the k sound in the middle of the word:
Now, compare it with the noun version of that word:
An example sentence with the word record is, "She broke the record for the number of doughnuts eaten in an hour."
The k sound has less aspiration when the cord syllable is unstressed:
I'll say them both again, first the verb form, then the noun:
Here are a few more heteromyns that follow the same pattern. I'll say the noun/adjective (first syllable stressed) version, then the verb (second syllable stressed) version. I'll leave time for you to repeat the set after me:
These details in aspiration really are details, and are less significant than your overall articulation of the sound. I care more that your vocal tract is in the right place during these sounds than that you have native-like aspiration. You can give this detail as much attention as you like. That said, I will tell you that I have misheard non-native speakers based only on the amount of aspiration given to sounds, so it does matter, just not as much as some other things.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this show, I have just published a new Introduction to Stops lesson, and I'll link to it from this show's transcripts page. You can find the transcripts for this, and all past episodes, at www.pronuncian.com/podcast.
I'll also link to the six stop sounds' word lists from this show's transcripts. You can find lots of minimal pairs (with audio) to help you practice on each sound's page. You can also practice the minimal pairs listening drills to check your listening comprehension. Subscribers should log in before practicing so you can keep loading new sets of pairs to practice. That's just one of the many benefits of subscribing to Pronuncian, as well as giving financial support to this show, which we always appreciate!
That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.
Thanks for listening.
About the ESL/ELL Teacher
Mandy has been teaching ESL, pronunciation and accent reduction since 2005 at Seattle Learning Academy, an English language school in Seattle, Washington, USA. She uses her experience with intermediate to advanced students to create the topics that most affect students living and working in the United States and can help them communicate better and more clearly.