Friday, 11 September 2009

But soft!

People who do not know phonetics often attempt to describe particular speech sounds by labelling them ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. The trouble is that these terms can mean quite different things to different people.

In Russian and other Slavonic languages they are well-established as meaning ‘palatalized’ and ‘non-palatalized’ respectively (which in Irish would be ‘slender’ and ‘broad’). But an English ‘soft’ C is one pronounced [s]. A Hiberno-English ‘soft’ t is a fricative.

Now consider this quote from the Wikipedia article entitled Tikka.
Tikka or Teeka or Teekka is the English transliteration for two entirely distinct Indian words: tikka with a soft initial 't' and tikka with a hard initial 't'. This often causes some confusion as to which "tikka" is meant.
Tikka with a soft initial 't' means a piece of meat, such as a cutlet.
Tikka pronounced with a hard 't' can mean a forehead mark or a needle.

So what is the phonetic difference?
After some research I was able to track down the two Hindi tikkas. The “soft” one, the one we know from chicken tikka masala (“Britain’s favourite dish”) is written टिक्का, transliterated as ṭikkā, IPA [ʈikkɑː].
The “hard” one appears to be a regional variant of the word usually written as tilak, the mark on the forehead of a Hindu.
In Nepal, Bihar and other regions, the tilak is called a tika (टिका)

…which in IPA is [ʈikɑː].
It would seem, then, that the difference is nothing to do with the t-sounds: both are retroflex and unaspirated. The difference is in the k-sounds. In one word the velar plosive is geminated; in the other, not.
I think that could have been more clearly expressed.


  1. Somebody in a recent book consistently called English unvoiced consonants "soft" and voiced ones "hard". Not sure if his natural impressions simply are contrary to most people's, or if he took that from another book and confused it because he doesn't connect any image to the designations.

  2. I'm pretty sure that's fairly normal in the UK. My (Scottish) wife says Scandinavian accents of English sound softer because we often devoice /z/.

  3. In German it's exactly the opposite: the voiced sounds are soft and the voiceless sounds are hard. That's why final devoicing is called "Auslautverhärtung" in German.

  4. Thomas

    Most native accents of English often devoice /z/, and all the other voiced fricatives, plosives, and affricates. I think you meant replaced /z/ with /s/, which is not the same thing as devoicing.

    Hope that helps.

  5. David Marjanović3 October 2009 19:25

    In German it's exactly the opposite: the voiced sounds are soft and the voiceless sounds are hard. That's why final devoicing is called "Auslautverhärtung" in German.

    I'd say the lenes (which are voiceless in the south) are "soft" and the fortes are "hard"; and the final devoicing that goes on in much of Germany really does go all the way to the fortis, so it really results in the "hard" sounds (surprised me a lot when I, an Austrian with no voiced plosives to devoice, finally found out).

    Anyway, knowledge of these meanings of "soft" and "hard" are necessary in daily life in German. If you ask for a spelling on the telephone, for instance, you might ask "mit hartem P oder mit weichem B?", stress on the words in bold.