Does the word discharge sound more like /dɪstʃɑːʳdʒ/ or /dɪsdʒɑːʳdʒ/?

How about exchange or disproportion?

Do they sound more like /ɪkstʃeɪndʒ/ or /ɪksdʒeɪndʒ/?

/dɪsprəpɔːʳʃən/ or /dɪsbrəpɔːʳʃən/?

I know the word student which commonly sounds like /sdjuːdənt/.

and the dictionary says its IPA transcription is /stjuːdənt/.

  • Student doesn't sound like *[ˈsdjuːdn̩t]
  • discharge ......................... *[dɪˈsd͡ʒɑːd͡ʒ]
  • spy ................................... *[sbaɪ]
  • describe ........................... *[dɪˈsgraɪb]
  • system ............................. *[ˈsɪsdəm]
  • school .............................. *[sguːl]

you think they do because you're confusing the plosives in your native language with the plosives in English.

English has two bilabial plosives—voiced bilabial plosive /b/ and voiceless bilabial plosive /p/, two alveolar plosives—voiced /d/ and voiceless /t/ and two velar plosives—voiced /g/ and voiceless /k/

In English, they're distinguished through voicing; /p/, /t/ and /k/ are voiceless while /b/, /d/ and /g/ are their corresponding voiced counterparts.

They are phonemes—mental representation of sounds, but can be realised in more than one way. For instance, /t/ has many allophones (realisations):

  • in the beginning of a stressed syllable, it's realised [tʰ] (aspirated: with a big puff of air)
  • in unstressed syllables, it can be realised [t] (no big puff of air)
  • in most American accents, t in the middle of vowels can be realised [ɾ] (alveolar flap as in wa[ɾ]er)
  • some dialects of British English use a glottal stop as in wa[ʔ]er.

All these are the different realisations of the same phoneme /t/.

The most common allophones of /t/, /p/ and /k/ are respectively [tʰ, t], [pʰ, p] and [kʰ, k].

  • [pʰ tʰ kʰ] → unvoiced and aspirated
  • [p t k] → unvoiced and unaspirated

In English, if you use them interchangeably, they won't change the meaning of the word. For example, the word pin is supposed to be pronounced [pʰɪn], but if you pronounced the p without aspiration (i.e. [pɪn]), it wouldn't change the meaning (as Spanish speakers usually do). That is to say, aspiration isn't phonemic in English.

Whereas in other languages like Chinese, aspiration is a distinctive feature for certain sounds (i.e. aspiration is phonemic).

In Pinyin:

  • the letter ⟨b⟩ is used to represent 'unaspirated voiceless bilabial plosive', IPA [p]
  • ⟨d⟩ for 'unaspirated voiceless alveolar plosive', IPA [t]
  • ⟨ɡ⟩ for 'unaspirated voiceless velar plosive', IPA [k]

By contrast,

  • ⟨p⟩ is used to represent 'voiceless aspirated bilabial plosive', IPA [pʰ]
  • ⟨t⟩ for 'voiceless aspirated alveolar plosive', IPA [tʰ]
  • ⟨k⟩ for 'voiceless aspirated velar plosive', IPA [kʰ]

In words beginning ⟨sp-⟩, ⟨st-⟩, and ⟨sk-⟩, English speakers use 'voiceless unaspirated plosives'. For instance, the p in pie is aspirated, but unaspirated in spy:

  • pie → [pʰaɪ]
  • spy → [spaɪ] not *[spʰaɪ]

In Pinyin, ⟨sp-⟩, ⟨st-⟩, ⟨sk-⟩ would be represented by ⟨sb-⟩, ⟨sd-⟩, and ⟨sg-⟩, respectively. So you see there's a mismatch between English plosives and Chinese plosives.

That's why you hear sdudent for student, sgool for school and sby for spy.

Whereas in words beginning ⟨p-⟩, ⟨t-⟩ and ⟨k-⟩, English speakers use 'voiceless aspirated plosives'. Examples:

  • pie → [pʰaɪ]
  • time → [tʰaɪm]
  • kite → [kʰaɪt]

In Pinyin, ⟨p-⟩, ⟨t-⟩, ⟨k-⟩ would also be represented by ⟨p-⟩, ⟨t-⟩, and ⟨k-⟩, respectively. So you hear pie, time, kite correctly.

The same thing is going on with affricates (/t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/). Affricates in some dialects of English are aspirated, but it varies from speaker to speaker. And if you hear [st͡ʃ] as [sd͡ʒ], then there certainly is aspiration which is affected by the preceding [s] (the same way as [s] affects the aspiration of p, t and k).

Or if /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/ are unaspirated, then they're only distinguished through voicing in English and voicing in Chinese is not phonemic so Chinese speakers confuse them easily.


  • 'Plosives' are the consonants that are produced by stopping the airflow at a particular place of articulation, accompanied by a sudden release of air such as /p, b, t, d, g, k/ etc.
  • I've marked incorrect/ill-formed sequences with a preceding asterisk (*)
  • 'Bilabial plosives' are the sounds that are articulated with both the lips: /b/ and /p/
  • the superscript h [ʰ] represents aspiration; a big puff of air
  • I've used /slashes/ for phonemic data, [square brackets] for phonetic data and ⟨angled brackets⟩ for orthography (spelling)
  • I don't know how to format it properly, that's why I've used ' ............. ' instead of ditto marks.
  • 1
    [d͡ʒ] is the sound in jam, [t͡ʃ] in cheese. – Void Dec 5 '20 at 16:26
  • I think the use of the glottal t in water would be thought of as a dialect usage in the UK and the standard would be [t] – mdewey Dec 5 '20 at 16:54
  • @mdewey: Yeah it's dialectal – Void Dec 5 '20 at 16:55
  • I think the explanation in your answer can apply to ZhuYin (BoPoMoFo) too. – Stats Cruncher Jan 24 at 11:16
  • Cast my eye over th wiki article on bopomofo and I think it applies to that – Void Jan 24 at 13:22

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