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.
/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.
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.
This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notes, diagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.