I listened to the pronunciation of spell in Wiktionary, and it sounds to me that it's pronounced as |sbel|—it sounds to me very clearly as a b sound. But in dictionaries, such as my Mac dictionary app, they say it's pronounced |spel| with a p sound. Could anybody please give me some information about this pronunciation, and why the p sounds like a b? My first language is Chinese.

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    I'm not sure about your first language, but I suspect that it makes you hear an unaspirated /p/ (which is normal after /s/) as a "b". – Damkerng T. Feb 13 '16 at 12:43
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    @DamkerngT. My first language is Chinese. Thanks for providing the information about Aspirated consonant which I have read the wiki page about that. – Sayakiss Feb 13 '16 at 12:51
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    I don't know if this should be closed if it is common for folks that speak Chinese natively to hear the unaspirated /p/ as "b". Yes the question is based on a misconception, but if it's a common one among a group of learners, wouldn't it be helpful to leave the question open for an answer? – ColleenV Feb 13 '16 at 13:58
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    Relevant ELU question: Why are 'student' and 'suspend' not pronounced as written? – sumelic Feb 13 '16 at 18:34
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    This is also an issue with Korean speakers, I remember driving in Seoul and seeing English languages street signs for bridges Banpo, Panpo, Pampo, Bambo and perhaps others... Thank goodness I could read enough Hangul to realize they all referred to the same bridge. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banpo_Bridge. – Ron Jensen - We are all Monica Feb 13 '16 at 19:52

It's pronounced /spel/ in the audio clip.

Phonemically, English has two bilabial plosive consonants, /b/ and /p/.
Phonetically, these two sounds can be realized in more than one way. The relevant ones to our question are [b] (for /b/), and [pʰ] and [p˭] (for /p/).

[b] is voiced.
[pʰ] is aspirated and unvoiced.
[p˭] is unaspirated and unvoiced.

The unaspirated [p˭] sound is common in English when a "p" (i.e., the /p/ sound) comes after an "s" (the /s/ sound), e.g., spool, spin, spell, etc.

In the audio clip given by Wiktionary, the /p/ sound is a [p˭] sound, that is, it's an unaspirated /p/ sound.
Note that it's not a /b/ sound in English.

For a native speaker of a Chinese language/dialect, it's not surprising to hear this unaspirated /p/ sound as a [b], because the Chinese unaspirated unvoiced bilabial plosive consonant sound ([p˭]) is romanized in Pinyin as b.
(For more information, see Standard Chinese phonology.)

So, I'd say that the OP hears the sound correctly, but it's a "b" only in Chinese. In English, it's a "p".
And in my humble opinion, this is quite normal for a non-native speaker.

The trick is to know that a sound could be thought of as two different consonants in two different languages. Keep that in mind and you would do just fine in listening tasks.

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    I had never thought it's my language mislead me to distinguish the pronunciation between b and p˭. In my elementary school, my English teacher(her first language is Chinese, too) told me that spel should be pronounced as sbel and didn't tell me why. And it remains a mystery for me till now. Really thanks! – Sayakiss Feb 13 '16 at 14:17
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    That was fascinating to read. Thank you for contributing this. – msouth Feb 13 '16 at 23:59
  • Does pinyin reserve "p" to represent an aspriated unvoiced bilabial plosive in Mandarin exclusively? Or perhaps more to the point, is there no voiced bilabial plosive in Mandarin? – Todd Wilcox Feb 15 '16 at 6:32
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    @ToddWilcox As far as I know, yes ("p" is only for the aspirated /p/ in Chinese), and no, there is no "b" like English /b/ in Mandarin. – Damkerng T. Feb 15 '16 at 6:35
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    This confusion is what you get when every language that uses the Latin alphabet changes its values to adapt to one's own norms. I'm pretty sure a vast majority of Westerners WILL pronounce "Beijing" with a voiced initial consonant instead of the unaspirated version because we are so used to the letter B representing /b/ (a voiced consonant). The writing-to-pronunciation confusion applies to basically any language from a learner's point of view. – Nihilist_Frost Feb 15 '16 at 20:12

The accepted answer by Damkerng is an excellent explanation, but I think it is also helpful to understand why it is pronounced this way, and as a native speaker of English I'd be happy to explain. In English we always strive for efficiency in pronunciation, and if we aspirated the /p/ as [ph] after such sounds as /s/, it would be rather difficult to do so in a single syllable. (Try it! You'll notice a small delay between the letters as your lips and teeth change position. This almost forces the combination to become two syllables.) But if we skip the aspiration, we can pronounce the entire "sp" combination (and any other adjacent sounds) in the same syllable. It is actually quite common in English to slightly alter the pronunciation of a consonant when it follows another consonant if it makes the combination more efficient to pronounce. For example, a similar situation occurs with the combination "st" which sometimes sounds like "sd" for the same reason.

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    I think that's key to understanding "consonant clusters" in English. They have a nature of their own. Just as Chinese has tones that English speakers can't hear, or the way a disfigured or irregular glyph can be recognized as one letter or another anyway based on choice of compelling vs sloppy-allowed features, the /p/ is distinguished from /b/ even if the asperation is missing by the specific voicing sound. As a careful speaker, my /p/ in a cluster will hqve more "pop" to it and carefully avoid avoid the broader resonance of the /b/. – JDługosz Feb 14 '16 at 8:14
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    I'm afraid this is only correct from the English point of view. Many languages — Khmer (there's one right in the name!) and Koine Greek have consonant clusters with [+aspirated], just not English. "Efficiency in pronunciation" is not a single language-independent objective. – jogloran Feb 14 '16 at 19:31
  • @jogloran: True, but after all this is the English Language Learners site. :-) I wasn't attempting to speak from a global perspective, I was speaking specifically of English pronunciation. But you're quite correct that other languages handle it differently. Although it is difficult to aspirate the second consonant, it's not impossible. My point was that it will cost you a brief delay, almost turning it into 2 syllables (or 1.5 as I like to think of it). Edited my answer to restate the case a bit less strongly. – David Sempsrott Feb 16 '16 at 1:21

While not disagreeing with any of the answers and comments above, I'd like to defend Sayakiss's position... Imagine that a mission arrived in an illiterate British Isles, and one of their number was charged with devising a spelling system for this weird language, English. He might struggle through how to represent all the sibilants, then the dental fricatives, then the complicated vowels, before coming to those clusters of 'S' + plosive. And he might say, "I'm using B, D and G for the voiced plosives, P, T and K for the unvoiced aspirated plosives, but these 3 sounds are neither - they're unvoiced and unaspirated - I could use P/T/K or I could use B/D/G." If that seems preposterous, consider Welsh, whose word for 'sceptic' is 'sgeptig', and whose word for 'spinal' is 'sbinol'. Welsh does, however, use ST not SD - the word for 'stump' is 'stwmp'.

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