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The "p" in "application" is unaspirated and the "p" in "apply" is aspirated since it is the first letter in the stressed syllable, am I right? When an unvoiced stop is the first letter of a stressed syllable, it should always be aspirated, correct? But for example in the word "excuse" since the second "k" is the second letter but not the first letter of the stressed syllable, I should pronounce it as an unaspirated sound, shouldn't I? I mean in the word "excuse" the first "k" should be aspirated and the second "k" should be unaspirated, right?

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In English, ⟨p, t, k⟩ are aspirated when they're at the start of a syllable (usually stressed), so the ⟨p⟩ in pie, pool, paper is aspirated. However, when the ⟨p⟩ is at the end of a syllable or preceded by an /s/, it's unaspirated so in words like map, spy, spin etc., it's unaspirated.

As the OP pointed out, the ⟨p⟩ in apply is aspirated because it's at the start of a stressed syllable: [əˈpʰlaɪ] (or [əˈpl̥aɪ]1). By contrast, the ⟨p⟩ in application is unaspirated because it's at the end of the syllable: [ˌæp.ləˈkeɪ.ʃn̩].

Now excuse: it can either be syllabified as /ɪk.skjuːz/ or /ɪks.kjuːz/, the first ⟨k⟩ in both the pronunciations is unaspirated. If you think of it as being derived from the prefix ex-, then it can be analysed as /ɪks.kjuːz/2, in which case the second [k] is aspirated: [ɪks.kʰjuːz]. However, if you don't have a morpheme boundary, then the second [k] is likely to be unaspirated because ⟨p, t, k⟩ are unaspirated when preceded by an [s]: [ɪk.skjuːz]. Some speakers do have a morpheme boundary in the word excuse so they aspirate the ⟨k⟩ while others think of it as single morpheme and don't aspirate the ⟨k⟩.

In a nutshell, aspiration of the voiceless stops in words like sister, whisper, whiskey, excuse etc., is controversial.


NOTES

  1. When an (stressed) aspirated stop is followed by a liquid (/r, l/), the aspiration usually results in the voicelessness of the following liquid so for example click can be transcribed as [kʰlɪk] -> [kl̥ɪk]
  2. We usually syllabify bimorphemic/polymorphemic words at morpheme boundaries abc
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Ex-, especially at the beginning of words, is special.

Excuse is pronounced like it's spelled "ek-scuse", as though the first half the x (the /k/) belongs to the first syllable and the other half (the /s/ half) belongs to the second.

The first /k/ won't be aspirated, the c will be.

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  • If the /s/ really is at the beginning of the second syllable, then the 'c' (second /k/) willnot be aspirated!! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 18 '17 at 14:03
  • Pronounce it and hold your hand to your mouth, you sure you aren't feeling a small puff of air from aspiration? It's hardly as strongly aspirated as at the beginning of a word (like cut) but most English consonants are aspirated at least a little bit much of the time. They don't sound like say Spanish or Russian with hardly any aspiration. – LawrenceC Dec 18 '17 at 14:08
  • There's a little experiment you can do to see if there's any aspiration, but it won't work for /k/ 'cuz it's too far back in the mouth. You can try it with /p/ though. Rip a long narrow strip of paper off a page, hold the top and hang the lower edge in front of your lips. Now say pie loudly. The paper will get pushed sharply by the aspiration. Now say spy loudly. You'll find that the paper hardly moves because there isn't any aspiration. Now try press and express. You'll see the same effect. An /s/ at the beginning of a syllable prevents any aspiration on a following /p, t/ or /k/. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 18 '17 at 14:22
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    @DereMemo No, the first /k/ isn't aspirated because it is at the end of a syllable (plosives in ends of syllables aren't aspirated). The /p/ in spy isn't aspirated, because it is preceded by an /s/. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 18 '17 at 14:44
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