p / b

/p/ and /b/ share manner and place of articulation and differ in voicing (/p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced). So, in theory they are exactly the same sound except for the fact that when we produce a /b/ our vocal folds vibrate and when it is a /p/ they don’t. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than that. In order to pronounce /p/ and /b/ well, we have to take into account more elements, and this is even more important when we compare them to Spanish /p/ and /b/.

One very important thing is that almost everything said here about /p/ and /b/ can be applied to  the pairs /t/-/d/ and /k/-/g/ because the three plosive pairs behave in the same way.

Let’s start by listening to these minimal pairs:

sound_loud_speaker park – bark

sound_loud_speaker pie  – buy

sound_loud_speaker pet  – bet

sound_loud_speaker pee – bee

sound_loud_speaker plot – blot

 

You will probably have noticed that, even though /p/ and /b/ are different, they are produced in a very similar way. And it is also quite clear that they are not the same as the Spanish corresponding sounds.


p (bilabial, plosive, voiceless)

Spelling: p (pot), pp (puppy), pe (ripe). Exceptional spellings: gh (hiccough)

 

Compare the following words:

sound_loud_speaker park – parque       sound_loud_speaker penguin – pingüino        sound_loud_speaker appear – aparecer       sound_loud_speaker panic – pánico

Listen to them in context.

sound_loud_speaker Penguins can’t fly.                                     sound_loud_speaker Los pingüinos no pueden volar.

sound_loud_speaker Please, don’t get into a panic.             sound_loud_speaker Por favor no entres en pánico.

Where does this big difference between English and Spanish /p/ lie? I’m sure you’ve heard the puff of air -like a small explosion- which is expelled when an English /p/ is produced. This is called aspiration and it is an essential characteristic of English voiceless plosives (/p/, /t/ and /k/) when they appear at the beginning of a stressed syllable. It is a feature that doesn’t exist in Spanish, so we have to get used to doing it in the English way. As we’ll see in a moment, learning how to pronounce /p/, /t/ and /k/ correctly -that is, accompanied by that puff of air- is crucial to avoiding misunderstandings.

 

Here are some examples where /p/, /t/ and /k/ are pronounced by native speakers:

sound_loud_speaker Is there a problem with talking about LGBT rights as human rights? (Laurie Taylor, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker It’s quite normal for a novelist in the eighteenth century to publish at least their first novel, sometimes all their novels, anonymously (John Mullan, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker He’s rather proud of this last possession (Julian Barnes, KUSP).

sound_loud_speaker Typed on a piece of paper (Rupert Everett, BBC4).


b (bilabial, plosive, voiced)

Spelling: b (back), bb (rabbit)

 

Now let’s see what happens with the /b/ when we compare the English and Spanish sounds.

sound_loud_speaker boat – barco          sound_loud_speaker baby – bebé

Listen to them in context.

sound_loud_speaker The boat arrived late.          sound_loud_speaker El barco llegó tarde.

sound_loud_speaker She’s just had a baby.          sound_loud_speaker Acaba de tener un bebé.

They are obviously different too. But what does this difference consist of? We might say that the English /b/ sounds dry and flat while the Spanish /b/ sounds somewhat richer. The release of the sound is also more sudden and clear in English. There is a phonetic reason for all this: even though /b/ is a voiced sound, when it comes in English at the beginning of a word it is devoiced, which means that it is produced with no vibration of the vocal folds. The devoicing of  voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ and /g/) in initial position is another essential characteristic of English, which accounts for the difference between the English and Spanish sounds.

 

Here are some examples taken from real life:

sound_loud_speaker The French scientist Cuvier was looking at the bones of things like whales and monkeys (A.S. Byatt, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker I think Romanticism begins with strong feeling rather than rational thought (Jonathan Bate, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Well, the book was well received in a small circle of friends and people who were in the know (Nicholas Roe, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker And throughout their lives they banded together both to support each other but also to keep the lid on things (Judith Hawley, BBC4).

 

Unexpected confusion. The devoicing of voiced plosives has a very important consequence. When /p/ and /b/ are at the beginning of words, English speakers don’t distinguish them by their voicing, since /p/ is voiceless and /b/ is devoiced (so, there is no vocal fold activity in either of them, they’re both voiceless de facto). They distinguish them because of the presence or absence of aspiration -the puff of air mentioned before-, because /p/ is aspirated and /b/ isn’t (remember the minimal pair park-bark). So if you pronounce the sound /p/ in the Spanish way -that is, without aspiration-, an English speaker is most likely to understand a /b/ (as I said, this happens with the pairs /t/-/d/ and /k/-/g/ too).

Let’s see how the phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis illustrates this problem on his very interesting website: “Hearing the Spanish word pacharán for the first time I wrote it as bacharan which is a fact that should warn students that if they fail to aspirate stressed syllable-initial /p/ etc, a native English speaker will be very likely to interpret that attempt at /p/ etc as the corresponding soft (voiced) consonant”.

From all this, we can draw a very interesting conclusion: Spanish /p/, /t/, / k/ sound very much like English /b/, /d/, /g/ in many situations. So we might think we are saying pitch but what our interlocutor actually understands is bitch.

 

Here are a few more real-life examples where /p/ and /b/ can be heard in the same sentence.

sound_loud_speaker And both of those aspects are important too because they always have this sort of public role (Judith Hawley, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker And King’s Lynn was… Compare to London was something of a backwash in those days  (Judith Hawley, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker I’m not worried about the buildings, I’m worried about the people (Michael Caine, BBC4).

 

b between sounds. Finally we’ll address an issue which is responsible for the strong foreign accent of many Spanish speakers of English: the pronunciation of voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ and /g/) within words. Let’s listen to the following examples:

sound_loud_speaker about – abajo          sound_loud_speaker abolish – abolir            sound_loud_speaker Albania – Albania

sound_loud_speaker ebony – ébano        sound_loud_speaker obesity – obesidad     sound_loud_speaker ubiquitous – ubicuo

It is clear that the English /b/ is very different form the Spanish /b/ when it is found inside a word. Here the problem is that, in medial position, the Spanish /b/ is no longer a plosive but a fricative. This means that we don’t stop the flow of air before producing the sound. Instead, we go smoothly from one sound to the other. You can check this by performing an experiment: put your finger between your lips and say the Spanish word abajo. You’ll see that, when you pronounce the /b/,  your lips don’t touch. The typical closure of plosives doesn’t occur. But, in English, this sound is produced in a different way. If you say the word about, you have to make sure that you close your mouth completely for a brief moment when you say the /b/. Do it in this way and you’ll get rid of the problem once and for all.

And here are two examples of the English /b/ in medial position. See how clearly the feature I’ve been talking about can be seen in the word abroad.

sound_loud_speaker A major exhibition about how photographers from abroad have viewed Britain (John Wilson, BBC4).

But, unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop here. There is another little detail to mention. We don’t normally speak in isolated words, but in chunks of speech where words are linked to one another. We produce an uninterrupted stretch of sound. For this reason, we are likely to pronounce the /b/ badly even when it comes at the beginning of a word. Have look at this example:

sound_loud_speaker You need to learn the basics of English grammar.

This is the correct pronunciation of the basics sound_loud_speaker But many Spanish speakers are likely to say it like this sound_loud_speaker*

As you can see, in the Spanish rendition of this sentence the word basics, is not pronounced with a plosive b. We tend to do a fricative b in this context because we link it to the previous sound. This should be absolutely avoided in English. Fortunately, it’s a very easy mistake to correct.

And here is a good example of how different the three plosives /b, d, g/ sound from their Spanish counterparts. Concentrate on the words gay, Roberts and Madonna in particular.

sound_loud_speaker Rupert Everett first memoir, Red Carpets and other Banana Skins, is full of witty, outrageous anecdotes about Hollywood, where he played the role of gay best friend to both Julia Roberts and Madonna (Kirsty Lang, BBC4).

Keep this point also in mind and you’ll improve your pronunciation immensely.

It is also very interesting to compare this section with those devoted to the other two voiced plosives, so you can check between sounds and g between sounds.

 

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