17 June 2009

the voice of sounds

In English and French (and consequently IPA), the difference between the sounds of 'p' and 'b' is the the latter is voiced and the former is not. In Mandarin Chinese, the difference between the (Pinyin) 'p' and 'b' is that the former is aspirated and the latter is not. In German the difference between the two is not in voicing, because most consonants in German are unvoiced. Generally the difference seems to be in aspiration (just as in Mandarin), but this is not the entire (scientific) truth. Wikipedia writes:
The nature of the phonetic difference between the voiceless lenis consonants and the similarly voiceless fortis consonants is controversial. It is generally described as a difference in articulatory force, and occasionally as a difference in articulatory length; for the most part, it is assumed that one of these characteristics implies the other.
Lenis and fortis here refers to a whole bunch of consonant pairs, written in IPA: /p-b/, /t-d/, /k-ɡ/, /s-z/, /ʃ-ʒ/. In any case, I have to learn how to properly say the voiced English consonants. I have started this training last year, most notably with my effort to make the word "fog" sound different from a four-letter-word and "bug" sound different from a colloquial unit of currency. I still have to train this a lot, but now I am faced with another problem: the IPA sounds /s-z/ in English are both written as "s" (except in zoo and some American spellings like "digitize", "monetize", "analyze"). Although this sound does not distinguish word pairs as often, it can still lead to non-understanding when pronounced wrongly. Furthermore, with an impeccable accent as a long-term goal, I would also like to distinguish /θ-ð/ which are both written as "th" in English. It's unvoiced in "thaw, think, earth, ..." and voiced in "they, the, this, ...". I will have to look up every word to find out; and then learn it again. Fortunately, as I start writing in Quikscript, I have an easy way to remember all those pronunciations.

PS: posts on Quikscript upcoming. ;-)


Sarah said...

Actually, the problem for Germans in English with /b/, /g/, /d/ is not so much that we cannot pronounce them, but more that in German there is a phenomenon called final obstruent devoicing. That means Germans have the habit to always say /p/, /k/ and /t/ at the end of a word. Take 'Bob'. While the English say /bɒb/, Germans tend to say /bɒp/. The first /b/ is okay, the second slips into /p/.

A similar problem arises with /z/ and /s/. Both sounds exist in a very similar fashion in German, for example, in 'Samstag' (IPA: /zamstag/) you have both right next to each other. However, in German /s/ never occurs at the beginning of the word while in English initial 's' is always /s/. I've never heard of misunderstandings in English because of /s/ and /z/, though. Can you give an example?

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