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Summary Details

Query:   Summary of Aspiration in English sCC
Author:  Katalin Balogne Berces
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonetics

Summary:   Dear Linguists,

Last week I posted a query (LinguistList issue 15.1872.2) 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 ''stray''.)

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 welcome!

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: 187-235.
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.

LL Issue: 15.1928
Date Posted: 26-Jun-2004
Original Query: Read original query


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