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Prompted by this question: The pronunciations of letter "P" in "explain, explore, explode" and in "expensive, expand"

My question is that if English has two kinds of Ps (p and in JamesK answer) then why do dictionaries write just /p/ and not /pʰ/? See the pronunciations from a few dictionaries for "pie":

  • /pʌɪ/ (Lexico)
  • /paɪ/ (Cambridge English Dictionary)
  • /paɪ/ (Collins Dictionary).

AND they write the same p for explain, explore, expensive.

They all write it /p/ and not /pʰ/ which suggests that the Ps are the same in all those words. This is kinda confusing... Can anyone help me please?

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TLDR: we only write contrastive sounds (phonemes) in /slashes/. For instance, [t] and [k] contrast in English as in /tæp/ and /kæp/. [p] and [pʰ] don't contrast in English so we don't write them in slashes. Dictionaries use phonemic transcriptions, so they don't write . However, we write and p in slashes for languages that contrast them (like Chinese and Icelandic).


Explanation

So /slashes/ are used to enclose phonemes. A phoneme is a 'meaningful unit' in that it distinguishes one word from another, for example, tap is distinguished from cap by a single phoneme /t/, so /t/ and /k/ are different phonemes because tap and cap are completely different words having different meanings and we would enclose t and k in slashes becuase they contrast in English. There's a language called Samoan where [t] and [k] don't distinguish words so both [t] and [k] are the allophones ('realisations') of the same phoneme in Samoan.

Now there are other languages that have phonemic aspiration (i.e. aspiration can distinguish words) such as Icelandic and Chinese. In both those languages, [p] and [pʰ] are contrastive. For example, [pʰaːr̥] in Icelandic means 'pair' and [paːr̥] means 'bar', so their phonemic transcriptions would be /pʰaːr̥/ and /paːr̥/ respectively. However, they would mean the same thing in English because English has no phonemic aspiration, so we wouldn't write [p] and [pʰ] in slashes for English. Native speakers think of both the aspirated and unaspirated p as the same sound (the same phoneme /p/).

Likewise, [tʰ], [t], [ɾ], [t̚] and [ʔ] occur as allophones of the phoneme /t/ in English. Although native speakers do (and can) hear the difference between all those sounds, they think of them as the same sound—/t/.

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  • The same goes for t and k (in English). .... Another reason could be convenience: the superscript h's aren't available in most keyboards, so the IPA used a plain p to make it easy for linguists.
    – Void
    Jun 30 at 8:34
  • Thank you!! So in Chinese dictionaries will write /ph/ and /p/ and in English only /p/. Is my understanding right?
    – Lasshatry
    Jun 30 at 10:33
  • @Lasshatry: Yes. (And it's not ph.)
    – Void
    Jun 30 at 10:38
  • 4
    @Lasshatry: Since Mandarin Chinese doesn't have a phonemic voiced/unvoiced distinction for its plosive consonants, its speakers have adopted the convention (in Pinyin) of using p, t, and k for the aspirated sounds; and b, d, and g for the unaspirated ones.
    – dan04
    Jun 30 at 20:06
  • 3
    @VladimirF: No. It's the vowel that distinguishes those words.
    – Void
    Jul 1 at 12:35
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As a supplement to the (excellent) accepted answer: phonemic transcriptions tend to be simple, convenient and easier than what is called "phonetic" transcriptions. It is way better to transcribe the English phoneme as /p/ than /pʰ/. Moreover, the underlying form is [p], that is, without aspiration. Aspiration is an extra feature in English. Because phonemic transcriptions tend to be easy and convenient, they are often called "broad transcriptions". They are not detailed transcriptions.

And that is why phonemic transcriptions use /r/ instead of /ɹ/ because the latter is not available on ordinary keyboards and keypads (as Void says). The regular symbol (i.e. r) in the IPA represents a "trilled" r. The R sound in English is ɹ (or more precisely ɹ̠).

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  • It seems that the underlying reason for this is that the primary target audience for the dictionary is people who already speak English (but aren't quite sure of the standard way to spell, pronounce, or use a particular word). The pronunciation guides don't need to mark aspiration because it's just something that English speakers don't consciously think about, if they're even aware that [pʰ] is different from [p]. OTOH, if an English translation dictionary is aimed at speakers of a language with phonemic aspiration, then the aspiration may be explicitly indicated.
    – dan04
    Jul 1 at 19:45

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