115: Sound combinations: sp-, st-, sk-, sc-

What happens to unvoiced stops after the s sound?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 115th episode.

Before I begin today, we're going to do a little listening experiment. If you have a pen and something to write on near you, please get it ready. This little observation will help you understand today's topic. I'm going to spell the words of a few sets minimal pairs. Then I'll play an audio clip from Merriam Webster's online audio files. I want you to write down which word you hear.

Ready? First I'll spell the words so you know what options to listen for, then I'll play the audio.


  1. p-a-r-k or b-a-r-k
  2. p-a-n or b-a-n
  3. t-i-l-e or d-i-a-l
  4. c-o-l-d or g-o-l-d
  5. c-o-m-e or g-u-m


Keep your answers ready. We'll come back to them later in this episode.

So, what is this all about? To understand this show, you must remember that the unvoiced stop sounds are the p sound, t sound, and k sound and the voiced stops are the b sound, d sound, and g sound.

Wait! Before we go any further, it is really helpful to have a basic understanding of stops before listening to this episode. If you don't know what a stop sound is, go back and listen to episode 114, then return to this show.

Today I'm going to make it a little more complicated and talk about what happens when the unvoiced stops (that's the t sound, p sound and k sound), aren't the first sound of a word or a stressed syllable, namely when these sounds occur after the s sound. I know, it seems like the details of these sounds never end!

Let's explore. In the English spelling system, words that begin with the letter s can be followed by the letters representing unvoiced stops. Those are the letter p (as in the word spell), t (as in the word star), and k (as in the word sky), or c (as in the word scare). Words that begin with the letter s cannot be followed by the letters representing voiced stops. Those are the letters b, d, or g. That spelling combination just doesn't exist in English.

I've learned from the forums that some students are taught to pronounce unvoiced stops as voiced stops after an s sound. So, the combination sp- is pronounced as sb-. With this idea, students are taught to think about the pronunciation of the word s-p-a-r-k as s-b-a-r-k.

That's why we began this show with the listening experiment. The audio files I had you listen to at the beginning of this show were altered files. The audio I played for you was not from either of the options I spelled. Instead, I took the words spark, span, style, scold, and scum, and digitally removed the s sound from the beginning of each word. I didn't change the audio in any other way. You heard the remainder of the word. In all honesty, I was very surprised how much every example I could find repeated the theory: after an s sound, unvoiced stops are pronounced very, very similarly to their voiced counterparts.

Since there is no chance of accidentally saying a different word with this option, there's no harm in thinking about it this way. Remember, there are no words in English that begin with the sb-, sg-, or sd spelling.

So, in our listening experiment, if you heard the word from the pair that began with the voiced stop sound, you might benefit from thinking of sp-, st-, sk-, and sc- as actually being pronounced as sb-, sd-, and sg-.

There is one very important detail to remember here, and it's regarding dictionaries. Dictionaries don't show allophones. The allophones you may be familiar with are the alternative t sounds, such as the quick d sound or the glottal stop. Dictionaries will only show a t sound, no matter which allophone of the t sound is commonly used. Likewise, you will not find any dictionaries showing you the voiced stop sounds after the s sound. While doing so might make the dictionary more useful for you, it would horribly confuse native speakers who don't realize that allophones exist. So dictionaries keep it simple, and generally don't show allophones.

I'm very curious about s sound plus stop sound topic, so I've started another forum topic, which I'll link to from this episode's transcripts. Please tell me which way you heard the audio files, and which way makes more sense for you to personally learn the pronunciation patterns. Or maybe you wish I hadn't talked about it at all because I've just made it more confusing for you and you were doing just fine before I brought it up. You can tell me that as well. Of course, you can also post any questions or comments you have about any pronunciation topic to our forums at www.pronuncian.com/forums. Obviously, I learn from your questions!

As always, you can find the transcripts for this, and all of our shows at www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

And one last thing: I know I haven't talked about the free audiobooks from Audible for a while now. I really wanted to tell you about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for this show, but this episode ended up being complicated enough all by itself. So I'll tell you about it for episode 116. In the meantime, you can still visit www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian and get a free audiobook by signing up for a free 14-day trial.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.