Unvoiced Plosives

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Continuing my series on the peculiar sounds we make in English (I previously wrote about That Crazy English “R” at [here] and Those Pesky “Th” Sounds at [here]), today I deal with three English sounds we hear in almost no other language: unvoiced plosives.

As their name implies, and every language has them, plosives are the exploding consonants we hear in words like big, dog, cat, pack, etc.

Three of them – “b, d, and g” – are voiced, meaning the vocal cords vibrate while we make them; but three – “p, t, and k” – are unvoiced, meaning that the vocal cords don’t vibrate. It’s this second set, the unvoiced plosives that are so very different in English.

What’s the difference? Aspiration. Aspiration simply means breath (a word with a crrrazy R and a pesky “th”). In English, when we make “p, t, and k” sounds, a little puff of air immediately follows. Put your hand in front of your mouth and say “p” as if blowing out all your birthday candles in one big puff. When I do it, as an English speaker, a lot of breath pops into my palm. But to my friends and clients around the world, I’m not Paul (aspirated “p”) but Paul (unaspirated). That’s how almost all the rest of the world’s languages pronounce this letter and its two companions, “t” and “k.” So instead of Pop tarts, Teapots, and Candy Canes (aspirated) we hear Pop Tarts, Tea pots, and Candy Canes (unaspirated). To the ears of English speakers, when an Indian friend, for instance, says that phrase, it’s almost as if they have said, Bob Darts, Dee bots, and Gandy Ganes. Almost. We know that the Indian voiceless plosives have their own very attractive quality that’s just as difficult for the English speaker to attempt. May I try? How did I do?

Do you remember the delightful French film Amélie? (See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0211915/fullcredits.) Amélie, the sweet Parisienne, is trying to find the person who hid a little box of treasure in her apartment many years before she became the tenant. She discovers that his name was Dominique Bredoteau. But she gets the name wrong and searches for someone named “Bretodeau.” In French, like so many languages, the unaspirated “t” is closer to the sound of “d” than in English. (How did I do, French friends?) You see how pay and bay, toe and doe, cap and gap, (unaspirated) can be misheard by English speakers unless you use aspiration to distinguish them from each other. So practice pay and bay, toe and doe, cap and gap using aspiration.

As usual, I’ve composed a challenging sentence to help you practice this strange feature of the English tongue. (And I’ve mixed in some crrrazy English R sounds, and some pesky “th” sounds too, just for fun!)

Thirty-three toothsome pounds of Sticky Toffee Pudding kept Kathy Crowther pretty plump.

Bon chance, mes amis! [Good luck, my friends!]