P – the Spit Sound



How to pronounce P

/p/ is a plosive sound made by putting both lips together, stopping the air as it leaves the body, then releasing it with an explosion of air. Let’s have a go everyone: /p/ “speak proper”.

Aspiration (or when to spit)

/p/ in English pronunciation is subtly different from /p/ in many other languages because the sound normally comes with an extra puff of air called aspiration – so an English speaker would say the /p/ in PARK with aspiration, but a French speaker, for example, would pronounce the /p/ in PARC without aspiration.

Aspiration happens nearly always on a /p/ in English, but is particularly strong before a stressed vowel, like in PORT, POLITICS & DEPART. It’s important to aspirate because if you don’t, your /p/ may sound like a /b/ to native speakers, so if you’re trying to say PARK, a native might hear BARK.

Aspiration doesn’t happen after /s/, so you won’t hear it in SPELL, SPRAY or SPECIAL. Ironically then, there is no aspiration in the word ASPIRATION. Similarly bizarre is the fact that a SPIT sound in English contains aspiration, but the word SPIT itself does not… perplexing.

Silent P

/p/ appears in 2 very commonly mispronounced words by learners of English, but it shouldn’t! Don’t say the ‘p’ in RECEIPT, and don’t say the ‘p’ in CUPBOARD. Also, leave it out of RASPBERRY.

In words starting PS, the ‘p’ is silent so don’t pronounce it in: PSYCHOLOGY, PSYCHOGENETIC, PSYCHODRAMA, PSYCHIC, PSALM, PSEUDO or everyone’s favourite guest at the motel: PSYCHOPATH.

Hiccough

The phoneme /p/ is always spelt with a ‘p’… except in one very bizarre word: HICCOUGH, in which the GH is pronounced /p/. This is caused by what is technically known as ‘folk etymology’. In other words, some bright spark in the late 16th century inexplicably and erroneously decided that a cough was a physical part of a HICCUP. The spelling of HICCUP with ‘cough’ then entered the language without changing the original pronunciation, to make one of the most preposterous spellings in the English language.

What a Nighpmare!

When a /t/ appears at the end of a syllable and is followed by a bilabial sound, namely /m,p,b/ it can be pronounced as an unreleased /p/ in connected speech. So BATMAN effectively becomes BAPMAN, FOOTBALL is FOOPBALL, and your FLATMATE turns into a FLAPMATE. This may sound like a NIGHPMARE, but most people do it without realising.

P / Pea / Pee

The letter ‘p’ is a homophone with the words PEE meaning to urinate and PEA a small green vegetable. There are numerous puns based on this hilarious coincidence, like this one:

Q  What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup?
A  You can roast beef but you can’t pee soup

By | 2017-06-21T09:17:12+00:00 June 21st, 2017|Pronunciation|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Rahul June 22, 2017 at 4:44 am - Reply

    That was great.

    I’m confused with the addition of the unreleased /p/ sound in batman and nightmare like words. Doesn’t the /t/ become /?/ ? Or does all glottal T are nothing but an unreleased /p/ sound?

    Thanks.

    • Joseph Hudson June 23, 2017 at 4:54 am - Reply

      Thanks Rahul!

      Yes – you could simply say that the /t/ has become a glottal stop [ʔ], but before a bilabial sound your mouth will predict the next position during the stop, so it could be seen as an unreleased /p/.

      This wouldn’t happen before consonants in other positions of the mouth so it’s not true to say all glottal /t/ are unreleased /p/, though the /t/ may mirror the next sound in other positions too – compare CATBOY (glottal stop or unreleased /p/) and CATGIRL (glottal stop or unreleased /k/).

  2. Dmitry June 23, 2017 at 10:38 am - Reply

    P is silent in the words with ‘pneum-‘ root, e.g., pneumatic, pneumonia, pneumococcus.

  3. Jan June 27, 2017 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    That’s great! You guys should post more audio clips! Regarding the topic — I didn’t realise that T—P was a thing in such words as FOOTBALL and BATMAN. I was doing it without thinking but now I know all the underlying physics!

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