“Tony Abbott and his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, have condemned carbon taxes during their first bilateral talks in Ottawa this morning.” (part of Aussie ABC audio; Original source)

I hear Stephen Harber instead of Stephen Harper. Is the presenter really pronouncing Harber? Or am I not differentiating voiced, b, from unvoiced, p? Which is the case? If I’m wrong, would you let me know how to differentiate between the two?

  • The key to differentiate English /b/ and /p/ sounds is their voiced and voiceless quality, like other similar pairs such as /d/-/t/, /z/-/s/. Jun 9, 2014 at 23:51
  • I tried to put myself in your shoes a little. (I can't speak Korean, not in the slightest, though.) Is it possible, by any chance, that you can hear this English /p/ sound in Stephen Harper more like a ㅃ sound than a ㅂ sound? (If that's the case, then you might use it as a secondary clue.) Jun 10, 2014 at 3:15
  • 1
    You can refine your hearing on this by searching for some minimal pairs in which Chris Uhlmann uses "b" and "p". For example, Chris Uhlmann says "Harbour" at the end of this audio: abc.net.au/am/content/2014/s3991143.htm. Jun 10, 2014 at 6:10

2 Answers 2

  • You might only be able to tell through context
  • The name Harper is more likely than the name Harber
  • Australian English is non-rhotic, which makes the /p/ less distinct
  • If your native language isn't English, or even Australian/NZ English, you might be less attuned to these differences, and you mightn't know what common/usual names are

If you're interested in a slightly more technical explanation...

The reason that we're hearing it as /b/ rather than /p/ is likely because the two things that we usually look for are absent:

  • It's surrounded by voiced segments (vowels)
  • There's no aspiration

What you have below are a spectrogram (above) and waveform (middle) with annotations (below) for Harper.

The main issue with stops - of any kind - is that they're relatively boring sounds, there's not much happening in them.

You can see striations at the base of the spectrogram where he pronounces the vowels, but not during /h/ and /p/ - these indicate voicing.

Also, Australian English is non-rhotic - the /r/ in Harper isn't pronounced. Were this pronounced by an American English speaker, for instance, where the /r/ is pronounced, the /p/ is much more obvious and distinct.


Obviously, this kind of answer is more at home on Linguistics.se, but I thought I'd throw this in because I find it really interesting, and it might actually be of use to any language learners who happen to be trained in some articulatory/perceptory phonetics.

  • Fascinating to see the spectrogram! Why is there no aspiration? Is that peculiar to the Australian accent, or common to all non-rhotic accents when pronouncing an unvoiced stop followed by (dropped) vocalic r?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 10, 2014 at 3:53
  • BTW, to me, an American, the /p/ sounds unvoiced, that is, like a /p/, not a /b/.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 10, 2014 at 3:54
  • The speaker is Chris Uhlmann. You might want to listen to or analyze the minimal pair "Harper" and "Harbour". Uhlmann says "Harbour" at the end of this audio (it's faster to downloaded as an mp3 and skip to the end): abc.net.au/am/content/2014/s3991143.htm Jun 10, 2014 at 6:00
  • 1
    +1 on this fantastic answer. Regarding "this kind of answer is more at home on Linguistics.se", I think the linguistic perspective is perfectly welcome, appreciated, and at home here in any comment or answer! @J.R.? Jun 10, 2014 at 6:21

I hear a p sound when I listen to that recording, but I think that is simply because of context clues. I know that the Canadian Prime Minister's name is Stephen Harper, and additionally I know that Harper is a much more common word than "harber", which is not a word (though "harbor" is). My ear is therefore much more willing to hear it as "Harper" even though the recording is a little bit ambiguous.

Listening critically to the recording, it does indeed sound like the narrator is saying "harber", with a voiced b sound. It sounds a little odd to my (American) ear, but I think it just has to do with this particular reporter's speech habits.

  • As an Australian, he is saying /p/, but it's very close to /b/. He also says Oddawa instead of Ottowa.
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 29, 2020 at 23:19

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