LINGUIST List 15.1928

Sun Jun 27 2004

Sum: Aspiration in English sCC Clusters

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Katalin Balogne Berces, Summary of Aspiration in English sCC

Message 1: Summary of Aspiration in English sCC

Date: Sat, 26 Jun 2004 07:19:21 -0400 (EDT)
From: Katalin Balogne Berces <>
Subject: Summary of Aspiration in English sCC

Dear Linguists,

Last week I posted a query (Linguist 15.1872) which went
like this:
I need some data about aspiration in English. It's well-known that
voiceless plosives are strongly aspirated at the beginning of stressed
syllables and word-initially as in 'pit', and that they are not
aspirated if preceded by /s/ as in 'spit'. Some authors also attribute
the devoicedness of following sonorants to this aspiration, as in
'trip'. My question is: is the plosive aspirated, and/or the following
sonorant devoiced in sCC clusters, as in 'stray, splash, skew,
squash'? I have only found very few data, and even those are
contradictory. Is it possible that there is some dialectal variation
here? Remarks/intuitions of any kind are welcome!

First of all, let me thank all those who replied (see the list of
names at the end of this summary, and forgive me for not mentioning
all of you in the running text). The most exhaustive phonetic
explanation I received from Mark Jones, I hope he doesn't mind me
quoting him:

''the realisation of /l, r, j, w/ following an s-stop cluster
(e.g. splash, stray, steward, squeal) is almost fully voiced. There
is, of course, even a short-lag positive VOT with so-called voiceless
'unaspirated' stops (as in English /sp/ etc.), and this remains in
this case, but we do not see the extensive devoicing attributed
largely to position of the vocal folds at oral release of voiceless
stops in English, i.e. fully abducted. As has been documented in
Docherty (1992) and Hoole (1999), the VOT in plosive sonorant
sequences often exceeds that seen in simple plosive onsets, i.e. VOT
for /k/ is longer in 'creep' than in 'keep'. Larson (2003) has
ascertained that this is not due to any additional glottal action, but
is most probably due to aerodynamic causes. Specifically, the greater
degree of constriction due to the following sonorant allows a slower
decay of intraoral pressure. As the vocal folds can only begin to
vibrate once a threshold difference between subglottal and
supraglottal pressure is attained, the longer VOT in these cases (/kr/
etc.) is due to a slower rate of venting of the oral pressure. On the
basis of these data, we might expect VOT to pattern increasing from
left to right as follows: steep < streak < teak < treat.''

Phonetically, then, the onset of the sonorant in sCC IS devoiced,
although not so extensively as in CC without the /s/. The extent of
devoicing must be responsible for native speakers' uncertainty:
although most of you answered a definite NO to my question, some of
you did observe some devoicing.

Another important conclusion to be drawn from your comments, and also
from some p.c. I had with a colleague of mine (Laszlo Kristo, also
from Budapest), is that a distinction should be made between the
voicelessness of the /r/ in /str/ and all other sCC clusters. This is
because in many dialects, when /r/ stands after /t/ or /d/ within the
same word, it combines with them to produce affricate-like sequences,
as in ''train, drain, attract,'' etc, in which the /r/ IS
devoiced. This affrication of /t/ may be mistaken for aspiration, as
John Kingston pointed out, too. Since affrication is a completely
different process, it is not surprising that a preceding /s/ will not
influence it. (This is also described in Jensen 2000: in ''train'' the
/t/ is aspirated and the /r/ is devoiced; in ''mattress'' the /t/ is
unaspirated and the /r/ is (less) devoiced, in the same way as in

In the other cases (like /spl, skj, skw/) there is no affrication and
of course there is no (extensive) aspiration either, and consequently
no (extensive) devoicing of the sonorants.

This aspiration-affrication distinction must have been the reason for
my confusion: the data I had found were not contradictory -- they
simply referred to two different phenomena.

A related question is how (tautosyllabic) /s/ prevents
aspiration. There have been both phonological and phonetic
explanations. The most popular phonological explanations include that
in sC the C is not syllable-initial, or that aspiration is unnecessary
there because the voiced-voiceless (lenis-fortis) contrast is
neutralised after a /s/. An old phonetic explanation (Kim 1970) is
that the glottis has to open for the voiceless fricative to anticipate
the stop and begins to close by the time the closure is made, and by
the time of the release the glottis is too narrow for
aspiration. James L. Fidelholtz says -- if I understand his argument
well -- that the voiceless fricative causes the closure phase of the
plosive to shorten, which in turn results in a smaller amount of
air-pressure built up behind the closure, which is too small to induce
considerable/perceptible aspiration.

Funnily enough, as I read your replies, further questions arose, like
'how universal is the fact that /s/ kills off aspiration?', and 'is it
only /s/, or could any voiceless fricative/sibilant as well do
so?'. Should you have anything to say about these issues, you're

Thanks for your contribution (in alphabetical order):

Jakob Dempsey
Robert Felty
James L. Fidelholtz
Alan Huffman (thank you for the reference!)
Mark J. Jones
John Kingston
Roger Lass
Nick Pharris


Docherty, Gerard J. (1992). An Experimental Phonetic Study of the
Timing of Voicing in British English Obstruents. Walter de Gruyter.

Hoole, Philip. (1999). ''Laryngeal coarticulation: coarticulatory
investigations of the devoicing gesture'' in William J. Hardcastle and
Nigel Hewlett (eds). Coarticulation. Cambridge University Press.

Jensen, John T. (2000) Against ambisyllabicity. Phonology 17.2:

Kim, Chin-Wu (1970) A theory of aspiration. Phonetica 21: 107-116.

Larson, Julie. (2003). ''A role for the larynx in contextual VOT
variation in American English?'' in Proceedings of the 15th
International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona: 3217-3220.
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