Author Topic: On soft consonants in English  (Read 517 times)

Offline Rock100

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On soft consonants in English
« on: January 23, 2020, 01:33:36 PM »
Hello.
Disclaimer. I am not a linguist, I have technical background and do not speak English myself (I do not do it as a part of my regular everyday activity).
Some people, especially Slavic ones, do not make the difference in the pronunciation of the words, that differs by the long e and short i sounds, like beach-bitch, peace-piss, sheet-shit, beam-bim. Luckily, we pronounce all of them with long e sound. I decided to teach myself to pronounce it right and found an interesting (at least for me) phenomenon. We are taught that English does not have soft consonants the way Russian does. I believe that soft consonants we make the following way – we smile a little and raise the middle of the tongue in the upper position as for the long e sound: b b’. Our textbooks claim that the difference in “beat” and “bit” is in the vowel sound only. But if you start pronouncing the hard b in “beat” and then raise the middle of your tongue up for the long e sound for a very short time it will sound as the short i. But if you raise your tongue in advance and start pronouncing b in this position you will get traditional Russian soft b’ sound.
So, I wonder if it is valid to pronounce “beat” with the Russian soft b’ sound, i.e. if you raise your tongue in advance for long e sound and start pronouncing b in this position. If you start with the soft b’ it will be possible to continue with the long e only. But how it will sound for native English speaker: as a native accent, a foreign accent or just normal? And if you find this variant of pronunciation acceptable it will mean (from my point of view) that English does have soft consonants too and you just emphasize the vowels after them.

Offline panini

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #1 on: January 24, 2020, 09:07:39 AM »
English speakers generally do not have problems understanding Russian accents in English, except perhaps extreme cases. So you will be understood if you say [bʲit], and there's a better than random chance people will identify you as a Russian speaker based on pronunciation. The fact that we can understand you doesn't mean that we have palatalized consonants. Non-native speakers often import sounds of their language into English, and we can still understand them. Russians can also understand English speakers who mess up pronunciation of Russian – "horosho", but Russian does not have h or ʃ (it has ʂ for ш).

Offline Daniel

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #2 on: January 24, 2020, 01:11:18 PM »
One problem is assimilation, where any two adjacent sounds will at least subtly, or sometimes obviously, affect each other's pronunciation. This makes describing and understanding Russian pronunciation in technical terms difficult, because there are differences in how the consonants are pronounced, but also the vowels. In fact, while it is generally described as a difference in the consonants, it is actually written in the language mostly via the vowels!

To fully understand this, you should read about palatalization (for example, on Wikipedia), including a bit of the history of Russian.

Generally speaking, palatalization is not a general part of English pronunciation, so most consonants are just not palatalized, nor are the vowels that follow. But we do have some similarities. A few consonants pronounced near the palate do get pronounce that way and therefore change the vowels near them, or sometimes palatal (high front) vowels cause consonants to palatalize via assimilation. But this isn't a relevant factor for example with [b]. There are also some interesting details like with how <u> is often pronounces "yu", like in "union".

The "short/long" distinction of English vowels is generally unrelated to this, but also tricky, and as you say, not found in Russian. Speakers of many languages have trouble with this (for example, Spanish), so it's familiar to English listeners, who can probably still understand in context. (Very rarely does it actually matter whether you say "sheet" or "shit", because those are such different meanings it's clear anyway. And yes, it's helpful that you probably would make an error by pronouncing the longer for I guess!) But the "short/long" distinction is tricky because of English spelling: these aren't actually the same sounds, just shorter/longer. They're different qualities of vowels. English spelling was standardized about 500 years ago, and around that same time the Great Vowel Shift was affecting the pronunciation of long vowels, but not short vowels. So the short vowels mostly remained in their original positions (you can see this by comparing their pronunciation to Latin or various other languages, or even transliterated Russian), but the long vowels are now just different sounds, about "one place" away within the vowel space. But then we have pairs like "ee" [i] vs "i" [ɪ], which you identified, but which are not generally called "short/long" pairs by English speakers, although linguists know this of course.
« Last Edit: January 24, 2020, 01:57:12 PM by Daniel »
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Offline Rock100

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #3 on: January 24, 2020, 02:53:31 PM »
Hello, and thank you for replies. My introduction was probably misleading and you emphasized different aspects of the problem than I expected. Yes, I do not speak English myself and do not know English very well but I know a lot about English, I know why “break” and “bread” are pronounced differently and why the “night” has such a strange spelling, I even know about the Big Northern Cities Vowel Shift (the accent I like) and can tell the difference between “Hi, ya’ll, whahdahrya’llfixin’to” and “hello, you guys”. I have listened to a lot of different American English pronunciation courses and all of them carefully hide the information about the consonant before long e pronunciation.
I do believe if you start to pronounce hard b in “beat” and then raise the middle of your tongue up for the long e sound than
1. There will be for the very short time the short i sound before you switch to the long e.
2. You will have to say a rather prolonged vowel in “beat”. (And yes, I do know that short i can be longer than long e and probably can even demonstrate it myself).
I also believe you may start to pronounce b in “beat” having your tongue put already in the position for the long e. In this very case, you do not need to move your tongue for the long e and can speak quicker. You will also get crystal clear long e sound. But, your b will be softened in this case – you just have no choice.
When I listen to the different (professional) speakers I either hear no difference in their way of pronouncing “bit” and “beat” or I hear clear soft b’ in “beat”. This very moment puzzles me a lot.
So, is your articulation for the consonant b the same in “beat” and “bit” or, probably, your tongue for the b sound is in a different positions?
Is different tongue position (when the middle of the tongue is raised for the b in “beat”) acceptable for the standard American accent? Or for a native English accent? Or such way of pronouncing is peculiar to non-native English speakers only and all natives raise their tongue for the long e after they say the consonant b?
Thank you in advance.

Offline Daniel

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #4 on: January 24, 2020, 10:45:39 PM »
The example with [i] is a little unusual, because even in Russian, и vs. ы is clearly a vowel difference, rather than (only) a consonant difference, which is distinct from the other vowels where there is a clear "y" [j] sound which we could either consider as part of the consonant (palatalized) or as a diphthong for the vowel. So for example Russian я is basically a combination of йа, rather than a distinct vowel.

Anyway, for English, there is no such thing as a soft consonant. That's just not part of the grammar (phonology). There are a few consonants that are always pronounced like "soft" Russian consonants (they're palatalized), but there is no variation in this way. The front vowels [i, e] also do create to some extent a little palatalization, but that's not nearly as extreme or important as in Russian. On the one hand, because this is not an important (phonemic) contrast in English, you can in principle pronounce them either way without changing the word to a different meaning. On the other hand, (most) English consonants just aren't "soft" (they're "hard" if you need a label), so English speakers would pronounce them "normally" (for English), and any variation from that would sound like a "foreign" accent (but probably still understandable because there's no other word with "soft" variants that would be confused). There are also a few cases where coincidentally the same kind of pronunciation as in Russian might appear, as in beauty (roughly бюти [bjuti]), but not because English has a soft/hard contrast, just because similar sounds go together in some cases. As for [bi] specifically (or any consonant followed by [i]), there is just never a contrast, and we pronounce the vowel like и, not ы.

(As an interesting footnote, English speakers do pronounce ы in the very specific context of some quickly-pronounced words [mostly function words or simple adverbs?] like "just" as in "I just did it", but not when the word is stressed. Whereas most vowels reduce to schwa [ə], in just a few words instead the vowel reduces to a similar but raised form [ɨ], although it's really more of a lax version of that, which I guess we could write as [ɪ̵].)
« Last Edit: January 24, 2020, 10:49:16 PM by Daniel »
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Offline Rock100

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #5 on: January 25, 2020, 01:49:06 PM »
Thank you a lot. You were very helpful. Though there is not a direct statement about may b in beat be started with the middle of the tongue raised up and IMO you did your best to hide the real state of the art as all the English teachers do I will read your “also do create to some extent a little palatalization” as yes, it may. I have been studying the issue for many years already and with a little bit of further pressure I believe I will finish it soon.
I never intended to tie the issue to Russian language I just used it as the example I know. But I would like to add my observations to your (absolutely correct) notes so you probably may find them useful.
1. Russians do not tell the difference between short i and long e English sounds. We treat them as long e only and it took me years (I do not have a practice or probably just stupid) to master the short i pronouncing.
2. I had never met a Russian who would thought of short i as about Russian ы sound. Ы is the American ash sound (as in bad) with the jaw put forward and a very little bit up. You can check it yourself, just say the ash and move your jaw back and forth. You will switch between the ash and perfect ы. But you are right, several years ago I recommended on a forum to pronounce ы very up for the short i sound. The result is usually good.
3. You are absolutely right about Russian е (йэ), ю (йу), ё (йо) and я (йа) diphthongs and about how they affect (palatalize) the previous consonant in a word. The native English speakers in 99% of cases use diphthongs everywhere while speaking Russian and this is considered as the very heavy foreign accent. For example (d’ denotes the palatalized d), дядя: d'ad'a – Russian, djadja – American Russian. But there is exactly one additional non-diphthong vowel sound in Russian that palatalize the previous consonant in a word – this is и, the American long e sound. I do not have problems with consonants followed by the short i sound – I believe I can pronounce them as a native American. But I have a problem with long e in this situation. If the previous consonant is not palatalized I hardly hear a difference in beat and bit. And if it does I am not sure I do not sound as a foreigner. Personally I can say it the both ways but palatalized way is much more convenient to me.

Offline Daniel

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #6 on: January 25, 2020, 10:10:40 PM »
Quote
2. I had never met a Russian who would thought of short i as about Russian ы sound.
I was comparing a few things above. That's not exactly the same sound, although it's also not so different. (ы is in the center of i/u, while long or short i is in the front.)

Quote
Ы is the American ash sound (as in bad) with the jaw put forward and a very little bit up. You can check it yourself, just say the ash and move your jaw back and forth.
Most vowels can be described in similar ways, just moving around the vowel space. Those two aren't especially close. /æ/ is a low front vowel,* while ы is a high central vowel. It doesn't really have a clear English equivalent, although it's sort of a mix between i/u. It's farther back than /i/, farther forward than /u/, and unrounded like /i/.
[*One interesting detail is that although /æ/ is front, it actually is not articulated as far forward as /i/ due to the shape of the mouth, which isn't a perfect square: it's wider for high vowels than for low vowels, which instead extend barely past central vowels, so in a sense you could say that ы is almost above /æ/, but not generally in terms of how phonological contrasts work, but just coincidentally due to the shape of the mouth.]

I'd recommend you do some reading about phonetics if this interests you. The very short version is that for vowels, we can describe them based on three features: backness, height and rounding. And for consonants, we can similar describe them via place, manner and voicing. (There are a few more details in specific languages, like palatalization in Russian, but those three features for vowels and consonants cover the basics for all languages.) Take a look at Wikipedia (or other website of your choice), and try to understand the International Phonetic Alphabet's organization in this way. (Note that the goal isn't memorizing the symbols, but understanding how one relates to another. Like b is a voiced version of p, or i is a higher version of e, etc.)
« Last Edit: January 25, 2020, 10:13:06 PM by Daniel »
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Offline Rock100

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #7 on: January 26, 2020, 12:38:14 AM »
Hm… I have studied the wiki as you have advised. Either I have a very thick accent and my school really sucked or the world went crazy while I was busy studying English and stopped reading about Russian. They say now that И may mean and be pronounced as Ы in some cases. I was taught that we pronounce Ы instead of И in that cases but grammar requires us to write И. So, I was taught that we substitute one phoneme with another one and do not change that phoneme (as if making an allophone of it). И and Ы radically differs (in my Moscow and Volgograd accent):
1. Ы requires considerable lower jaw forward movement. And if it follows a consonant sound in a word it requires non-palatalized variant of that consonant.
2. И is literally the American long e sound as it is. And if it follows a consonant sound in a word it requires palatalized variant of that consonant.
In my opinion, the differences are too big to consider these phonemes as allophones. Luckily, wiki says that we have a very reputable phonetic school that considers Ы as the separate phoneme. I am definitely going to stick to that religion.
So, beat, bit and быт (everyday life) are three different phonations for me. Yes, I invented (if you will) the method of pronouncing somewhat close to Ы instead of short i several years ago but I do not use this method myself because for me bit (by a professional AmE narrator) and быт have completely different sounding (though beat and bit sound very similar). Another my invention is that one could start with palatalized b for beat and non-palatalized b (impossible combination in Russian) for bit. I tried to check these ideas on American Mormons (from different states and not only Utah’s ones) and they sad I sounded perfect. But the problem is that American Mormons are extremely polite while American linguists are very evasive (or I am just incapable to perceive them).
Well, they changed the very basics of the living creatures’ classification and invented a new ocean on Earth since I have finished school. It looks like it is the time to have a look at what they have done to the Russian language too…

Offline Daniel

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #8 on: January 26, 2020, 01:52:51 AM »
Quote
In my opinion, the differences are too big to consider these phonemes as allophones.
I didn't claim they are allophones. I'd assume they're contrastive (phonemic), except that you instead might want to claim that the consonants all come in soft/hard pairs. So the problem is that you only need one contrast: consonants or vowels. You don't need to have both, because they predict each other. This problem gets complicated because it requires a specific analysis identifying the locus of the contrast, which is not easily determined from the actual data. A similar example from English is that before voiced consonants, vowels are pronounced longer than the same vowel before a voiceless consonant: compare "bad" (longer æ) and "bat" (shorter æ). Almost no one would claim that vowel length in those cases is phonemic, yet it is a perceptually salient clue to the identify of the word, because the final stops are often unreleased so it's hard to hear any difference, and we actually do rely on the vowel to figure out what the consonant is. The situation for Russian seems similar to me.

Quote
So, beat, bit and быт (everyday life) are three different phonations for me.
I agree.

In the end, there's no substitute for experience: listen, and then practice pronouncing. Repeat (for years). Even for linguists, identifying these details is only a small part of the problem, and the rest is just practice. And once you get to a very narrow level of detail, you'll find native English speakers vary too (at least from different regions, and sometimes even just different individuals). A range of pronunciations is acceptable, although the details, and assimilation (the way that two adjacent sounds change each other) is crucial to really sounding convincingly native (if that's your goal). Being understood is a lot easier, of course. And just remember: all that native speakers can judge your accent by is just their experience (a lot of experience), which means it won't follow rules, just tendencies, and sometimes very subtle ones. If you don't believe that, then just look at how easily you can recognize someone speaking with your own accent (your own home town, etc.) if you're traveling. We all have accents, and our ears are very good at noticing them, down to the smallest details.
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Offline Rock100

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Re: On soft consonants in English
« Reply #9 on: January 27, 2020, 02:23:51 AM »
Holy … I discovered that I tend to pronounce ы after the unvoiced consonants a different way – I tend not to put my lower jaw forward and it sounds much like the American short i sound indeed. And in this very case one definitely may consider the ы as the allophone of и. So, the phonetic school that treats ы as the allophone of и have a kind of foundation for this (but it is still not enough IMO).
And it is curious that Russians mispronounce the “shit” starting it with “she” while they are really capable to pronounce “some shit” – самшит (the boxtree) --  as the native Americans.