Wednesday, 14 March 2012

no (audible) release

Plosives are traditionally analysed phonetically as having three stages or phases:
(i) the “approach” phase, during which the primary articulators move into contact;
(ii) the “hold” (or “compression”) phase, during which the contact is maintained, blocking the escape of the air stream, so that air pressure builds up behind the closure; and
(iii) the “release” phase, during which the primary articulators move apart, allowing the compressed air to escape explosively.

In the case of “nasal release” (as in the d of hardness) it is not the primary articulators that move apart, but the soft palate that moves away from the rear wall of the pharynx, allowing the compressed air to escape nasally; in the case of “lateral release” (sadly) it is the side rims of the tongue (or more generally the side part of the primary articulators) that move, allowing the compressed air to escape laterally. Logically, we can also speak of “nasal approach” and “lateral approach” for the variants of stage (i) in which it is not the primary articulators that move into contact, but the soft palate or side part of the articulator respectively.

In the case of “geminated” plosives, as in Italian fatto, the hold phase of the plosive lasts for an extra long time. If you prefer to describe this event as consisting of two entities, corresponding to each of the phonemes involved (here, /tt/), you can say that the first has no release and the second has no approach. In that sense you can also say that in the English phrase good dog the first d has no release, the second d no approach. But at the physical level we really have just a single plosive with the same three phases as any other plosive, the hold phase simply lasting longer than usual.

In the usual English pronunciation in cases such as actor ˈæktə, logged on ˌlɒɡd ˈɒn, the two adjacent plosive articulations (here, velar and alveolar respectively) overlap in time. This means that the release of the first plosive is “masked” by the second. The auditory signal shows us a velar approach, then a long hold, then an alveolar release. The first plosive is sometimes labelled “unreleased”, though a better term would be to say that it has “no audible release”. (The second plosive could also be called “unapproached”, or better “with no audible approach”, but people don’t often mention that.)

The IPA provides a special diacritic, [˺], U+031A, meaning “no audible release” (Handbook of the IPA, p. 182, 204, and the IPA Chart). We could write this pronunciation narrowly as ˈæk˺tə, ˌlɒɡ˺d ˈɒn. (Unfortunately, U+031A doesn’t display properly, so in its place I’ve used U+02FA, which looks the same.)

The Unicode Standard, unfortunately, glosses U+031A as “IPA: unreleased stop”. And it is true that Cantonese final stops, English k in actor, etc are sometimes termed “unreleased”. I think this terminology is inappropriate.

Daniel Jones used to speak of “incomplete plosive consonants” and to say that such consonants “have no plosion”. What he meant was that they have no audible plosion. We no longer use his terminology, saying nowadays that they have no audible release.

Burmese, Cantonese, and Thai are examples of languages in which syllable-final plosives regularly have no audible release. This applies not only utterance-finally but also utterance-medially no matter how the following syllable begins. The explanation is usually a supervening (overlapping, masking) glottal closure, giving [t˺ʔ] etc. But — utterance-finally, at least — it could theoretically also be because the lungs relax and so stop creating an airstream.

Magda Zając, a PhD student at the University of Łódź, wrote to me about “unreleased” stops.
Do you think an unreleased stop can sometimes appear in intervocalic contexts? E.g. in phrases like: that itchy goose, that area was, she measured out a lot.

Clearly, the ts in these phrases can sometimes be pronounced as glottal stops, ʔ. But they can also be pronounced in a way that involves an alveolar articulation with complete closure, yet without the noise burst associated with alveolar release.

One of Magda’s teachers had told her that some of the sounds that she took to be glottal stops were “actually unreleased /t/s”. But another of her teachers had told her that he didn't think it was possible to have an unreleased stop intervocalically. So who was right?

I think they were probably t with no audible release. An overlapping glottal plosive masked the alveolar release.

I said
Physiologically, you can't have a fully “unreleased” plosive between vowels. In any plosive there is a compression stage, during which the air stream gets compressed behind the closure. Either this compressed air is ultimately released (by the removal of the oral closure, or alternatively by the removal of the velic closure as the soft palate moves) — or the initiator of the airstream (the lungs, usually) ceases to provide the pressure.

In utterance-final position you might have a truly unreleased plosive, with the lungs ceasing to maintain the air pressure. But not in mid utterance!

If it sounds like an unreleased plosive, perhaps it is really an oral
plosive with a supervening glottal closure. After the oral closure is
complete the glottis closes, thereby holding the air pressure from the
lungs. When the oral closure is released, the closure is inaudible because there is no air pressure behind it.

So I would call it "no audible release", not absence of release.

Magda is not satisfied.
Yes but what I don't quite understand is the following: What, exactly, is the difference between a word-final plosive with inaudible release and a word-final unreleased plosive? Because if I understand correctly, in both cases the air compression becomes weak and no relase stage can be heard. So can these terms be used interchangeably with regard to word-final plosives?
I'm really sorry for the pestering, but I really can't get my head around the difference between "unreleased" and "no audible release", especially since at times it seems that both terms are used to refer to the same phenomenon (e.g. in Gimson's pronunciation of English in the section about the release stage of English plosives).

I don’t know what further I can say to make my view clearer. It is true that in the Gimson book (seventh edition, 2008, ed. Cruttenden) the term “unreleased” does make one, isolated, appearance. Let’s put this down to an uncharacteristic lapse on Cruttenden’s part.

Let’s boycott the term “unreleased”.


  1. With regard to nasally released plosives: In my Swiss-German foreigner's pronunciation of English, I naturally produce nasal releases in words such as sudden or cotton. Yet when I see descriptions of the English pronunciation of these words, they do not mention a nasal release, but a glottal release. I wonder whether a nasal release in such words would also be used by native speakers

    1. With great pleasure!

      Ella, I note, though born in Virginia, was brought up in Yonkers just north of the city, and so has almost the same accent I do, or at least assumes it while singing this song. As the last few lines rhyming spoil and girl show, the lyricist had the PRICE=CHOICE merger, but Ella does not: she artificially pronounces girl with CHOICE.

      I have similar problems when I sing the Winnie-the-Pooh song "Cottleston Pie" for my grandson, replacing the line "Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie" with "Dorian, Dorian, Dorian boy". Rather than doing a proper PRICE=CHOICE merger, which requires a lot of attention to produce all those [ʌɪ]s that I don't naturally have, I simply pronounce boy with PRICE, like a Newfie.

      Hey, he doesn't care, he's only three and it's a lullaby to him. (For the Poohvians among us, I am using the Fraser-Simpson melody from the Pooh Song Book as I learned it from the Jack Gilford album, but not imitating Gilford's accent. I also don't use the bridge melody that carries the second verse, as I find it a bit too disturbing for a lullaby.)

    2. @David Crosbie:

      Ella Fitzgerald's pronunciation of "Manhattan" (at least the first couple of times, which is all I listened to) sounds like an alveolar stop with nasal release to me. Do you really hear glottal closure?

    3. vp

      I hear what you hear. I thought that's what j. mach wust was asking about.

    4. If by "use a glottal release" you mean "use a glottal stop (to mask the oral release)", then I don't believe any NS would use a glottal stop in sudden. Surely [ʔ] is an option for /t/ before [n], but never for /d/ in this or any other position.

      I regularly use the word suddenly to exemplify nasal release, since it would be very unusual to use oral release (giving [-dən-]) and impossible for a NS to use [ʔ]: the only likely pronunciation is nasally released [d].

  2. What bugs me is saying that "in the usual English pronuncation ... the release of the second plosive is 'masked'" (emphasis mine).

    Inaudible release is certainly an option; but try searching e.g. the LPD for e.g. -kt- and you'll find that in most of the recordings the /k/ is in fact audibly released.

    I have a suspicion that many of the speakers will have a glottalised /k/ in this position in their normal pronunciation, and they may overdo the /k/ when trying to be super-clear in recordings meant for dictionary use. Maybe. But still.

    1. Recordings by actors tend to a compromise between clarity and usual pronunciation. In performance, the ideal is to achieve the illusion of usual pronunciation.

    2. Illusion of usual pronunciation? What on earth would that be? If the auditory impression is the same as that in a "usual pronunciation", then functionally the pronunciation is a "usual pronunciation".

    3. Put people in front of a microphone and they do funny things. Some of them we accept, some of them we don't. Being an actor is all about saying unnatural things in an unnatural way that suits the expectations of the audience at a particular time and place.

    4. Wjarek

      The illusion of usual pronunciation wouldn't fool a phonetician or a sociolinguist. But it's the right effect for an audience listening carefully to the text while relying on somewhat stereotypical expectations to fill out the voice characteristics that they think they're hearing.

      In Britain, it's very noticeable in radio drama. The accents are usually not downright wrong for the regional or social lect, but they're often off-target but subtly persuasive.

      More generally, if you record something without a wider context, you compensate for the support that a hearer would normally rely on. If the intended hearers are foreign students, you try harder to compensate — and, paradoxically, try to conceal the fact that you're compensating. Reading single citation forms of words with no context whatsoever presents an ever greater challenge to the actor (or teacher).

      The clearer the diction, the more likely it is to be the result of careful artifice.

  3. Oh, and another thing I've been noticing lately -- somewhat tangential, but not too tangential: For some speakers, the glottalisation of final voiceless plosives is so categorical that when they attempt e.g. a released final /t/, they end up with an ejective.

    1. Forty years ago I was made aware of doing this in pronouncing an emphatic But before a pause. A Russian teacher of English heard it as an allophone of /ts/ and asked me whether it was a new development in English.

  4. Your student asked a tricky question,John. A simple answer is then, for a test---close your mouth and try to use your articulators to see what you get; a phonetic properties of a nasal and a glottal release—now close your mouth and nose to see what you get from the same articulation; jere just a phonetic property of glottal release. So how this could be a phonetic property is a sound but not a phonme. And the next question here seems to me of the onset timing, rather than having the conclusion that there is no release.

  5. Thank you so much for this blog!!! It's so enriching.
    I have a question. If a voiced plosive sound in final position is pronounced with a no audible release, wouldn't it be impossible to devoice the same sound as it is not released? In an allophonic transcription, what would you mark? Devoicing AND no audible release, or one of the options?
    E.g: decided. /d/ final position

  6. Thank you so much for this blog!!! It's so enriching.
    I have a question. If a voiced plosive sound in final position is pronounced with a no audible release, wouldn't it be impossible to devoice the same sound as it is not released? In an allophonic transcription, what would you mark? Devoicing AND no audible release, or one of the options?
    E.g: decided. /d/ final position

    1. (De)voicing and (non-)release are independent of one another. You can switch voicing off before or during the hold phase and then (in utterance-final position) fail to release. Or not, or not.

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