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It is my understanding that:

  • Voiceless stops are aspirated at the beginning of a word, and at the beginning of a stressed syllable.
  • Voiceless stops are unaspirated at the beginning of an unstressed syllable.
  • They’re also unaspirated in any other position, like at the end of a syllable or the end of a word.
  • If a syllable is stressed, a voiceless stop is unaspirated if it follows [s].

Also, in this question: Are English consonant sounds [p], [t], [k] aspirated before another consonant?, the matter of aspiration before consonants has been in discussed at length. However, I found in this book for ESL students: Pronounce It Perfectly in English, ISBN-13: 978-0764177491.

That:

  • When a word ends in another consonant plus /p, k, t/, the /p, k, t/ sound must be aspirated, for example:
  • /p/: lamp, harp, grasp, scalp, limp, sharp, wasp, help
  • /k/: frank, ink, work, fork, ask, talk, walk, mosque
  • /t/: act, lift, fault, apt, can't, text, last, borscht

Here's my question: is that a reliable rule? Are voiceless plosive sounds aspirated at the end of words when come after another consonant?

I'm asking about Standard American English in particular.

Thanks!

1 Answer 1

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That rule is not true, but is kinda close. A bit of linguistic expansion first.

In English, there are three allophones of each of /p/ /t/ and /k/, being:

  • "aspirated" [ph]
  • "unaspirated" [p]; and
  • "unreleased" [p ̚ ].

"Unreleased" means the place of articulation isn't even opened, so it can only occur at the end of a syllable. The shape of the mouth at the end of the preceding vowel is enough to indicate which consonant it is. So in the case of [p ̚ ], at the end of the word "top", we can close the lips to form "p", then never release the lips so no air gets out.

With words that end [ vowel + /p, t, k/ ], the pronunciation of /p, t, k/ is in free variation, which means all three allophones are correct.

With words that end with [ consonant + /p, t, k/ ], the shape of the final plosive isn't present during the vowel sound, so we must pronounce it either unaspirated or aspirated for it to be heard, not unreleased.

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  • You said that "With words that end [ vowel + /p, t, k/ ], the pronunciation of /p, t, k/ is in free variation, which means all three allophones are correct." Doesn't it break the "rule" of non-aspiration at the end of syllables/words? Also, do voiced plosives have the allophones: unaspirated and unreleased? Thank you so much!
    – Darvid
    Aug 11, 2022 at 21:34
  • @Darvid I'm not familiar with any "rule of non-aspiration at the end of syllables/words". Can you tell me more what you're talking about? It's natural to aspirate at the end of a syllable/word. Yes, the voiced plosives only have unaspirated and unreleased allophones.
    – gotube
    Aug 12, 2022 at 2:09
  • 2
    thanks for answering. In this article about Aspiration in Standard American English, I read that voiceless stops should "not [be] aspirated in word final position". Also, in a post by a popular YT channel I found: "At the end of most words (and syllables) stop sounds are pronounced without a puff of air. For example, 'lap,' 'sheep,' 'update.'" They call it the final stop rule
    – Darvid
    Aug 12, 2022 at 14:58
  • @Darvid Aspirated is less common word-finally than unaspirated or unreleased, and when I do it on purpose it sounds like I'm a bit upset, but IMO it's an overstatement to say there's a rule against it. Linguistics isn't a hard science, and majority opinions do change. What I can say for sure is that 20 years ago, linguistics students like me learned that all three allophones are in free variation at the end of utterances.
    – gotube
    Aug 12, 2022 at 18:18

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