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On soft consonants in English

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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.


--- Quote ---2. I had never met a Russian who would thought of short i as about Russian ы sound.
--- End quote ---
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.
--- End quote ---
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.)

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…


--- Quote ---In my opinion, the differences are too big to consider these phonemes as allophones.
--- End quote ---
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.
--- End quote ---
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.

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.


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