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I have been taught that the pronunciation the letters after s should be changed.

e.g.

school:  `ch` reads /g/ in `grow`
stay:    `t`  reads /d/ in `day`

But I'm not sure these words:

describe:  the `c` after `des`,   /k/ or /g/?
discrete:  the `c` after `dis`,   /k/ or /g/?
system:    the `t` after `sys`,   /t/ or /d/?
execute:   the `c` after  `exe`,  /k/ or /g/?

Which is the correct pronunciation, and when shall I change, when not?


UPDATE:

Matt asked me why not get them in dictionary, but the changed pronunciation won't present in dictionary. See:

stay    /stei/,     it's `t`, not `d`
school  /sku:l/,    it's `k`, not `g`
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    Dictionary won't show the changed pronunciation (if did change), and the pronunciation guide is not clear enough for me. So I have to look for help here. – Freewind Sep 3 '13 at 9:41
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    Freewind, it seems the pronunciation guide is not the only thing that is not clear. If you were taught to pronounce ch like g and t like d, your teacher was also unclear. – Tristan Sep 3 '13 at 12:07
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    To English ears, school is pronounced exactly like an s sound followed by cool. There is definitely no change in phoneme. I don't think the realization is different either, but that's something even natives can go through their whole life without noticing. The same applies to your other examples. This may be a failed attempt to explain the phonology of English in terms of the phonology of another language. What language were you taught in? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Sep 3 '13 at 12:44
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    @J.R. The sound should be changed unless you want your accent to sound non-native. /k/ is usually aspirated, but in school it's unaspirated (like /g/). This sound could be reasonably described as "halfway between k and g" since it has traits of both (unvoiced, as in /k/, but aspirated, as in /g/). Of course, as native speakers we're unlikely to notice we're pronouncing it any differently. – snailcar Sep 3 '13 at 14:51
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    @J.R. That's a slightly different situation since it's heteromorphemic. In most cases the distinction would be preserved between discussed and disgust. EDIT: I found the answer by StoneyB: ell.stackexchange.com/a/9079/230 It seems pretty accurate, although it's not actually true that nobody will hear when you use the wrong allophone. – snailcar Sep 3 '13 at 15:14
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In fact I think /sgul/ is a better transcription than /skul/ for someone who is familiar with a foreign language.

In English, the phonemes /g/ and /k/ are differentiated in two distinct ways. First, we use our voice box for the /g/ and not for the /k/. This is called "voicing." Second, we let a puff of air out on the /k/ and not on the /g/.

In fact, because these two are somewhat redundant, most English speakers do not voice the /g/ very strongly. Typically, the voicing begins only after the initiation of the consonant, in contrast to Spanish or French where the voicing begins right away.

In Spanish and French, /k/ and /g/ are differentiated only by voicing -- a puff of air is not used on either letter. As a result, English speakers often hear /g/ when second-language speakers from one of these languages intend /k/. (And the reverse happens when we try to learn one of these languages.) A similar story holds for /p/ vs. /b/ and also for /t/ vs. /d/.

(Contrast /s/ and /z/, where the only distinction is voicing -- there is no puff of air on the /s/. Here, English speakers do tend to voice the /z/ strongly and immediately.)

Now, the interesting thing about the "puff of air" is that we don't do if the consonant comes after an /s/. (So /sp/, /st/, and /sk/ are all unvoiced, and no air puff.) You might think we would then confuse these sounds with /sb/, /sd/, and /sg/, but luckily, these latter clusters do not occur in English words, so there is no risk of confusion.

Therefore your dictionary, which tells you to say /g/ after /s/, is half right and half wrong. It's right because you shouldn't puff the air, but wrong because you shouldn't use your voice box. Luckily the risk of misunderstanding here is very small, so if you were working on modifying "one step at a time" till you sound more like a native speaker, I would make this step very late in the process.

  • (note that /sb/, /sd/, and /sg/ occasionally occur across syllable boundaries, as in misbalanced, but then you should separate them mis-bal-anced. also there is a common fast food chain in America called Sbarro, which is properly pronounced "uhh... that fast food Italian place... uh... suh... barr... o??") – hunter Dec 17 '13 at 16:59
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The dictionaries are right in this case. "School" is pronounced as with a "k", not a "g", and "stay" is pronounced with a "t", not a "d".

That said, everyone interested in (or puzzled about) this question should make those sounds over and over again (that is, say, "t- t- t- t-, d- d- d- d-, t- t- t- t-, d- d- d- d-..." and then say, "k- k- k- k-, g- g- g-, k- k- k- k-, g- g- g-"), while paying close attention to what your tongue is doing in your mouth. If you're doing it correctly, you'll find the tongue doing pretty much the exact same thing even as you switch letters from t to d (and again from k to g); the difference is in the breathing and the noises we emit. Consequently, when the sound is in the middle of the word, particularly after an "s" (as in describe), even when the speaker is trying to say a "k", it can end up sounding much like a "g".

That said, you should never try to pronounce the "g" when you are supposed to be sounding out a "k" – strive for the right letter, but don't be surprised or alarmed if it comes out sounding like what I will call its "partner letter."

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