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When I listened to the audio pronunciation of "taste" /teɪst/, I noticed that the first and last "t" sound different: the first "t" sounds like [tʰ] while the second one sounds more like [tsʰ]. Words that end with /t/ such as "it" and "act" also has this [tsʰ] sound.

However, words ending with /k/ or /p/ does not have this different sound (e.g. cake and peep).

Why is the ending /t/ pronounced differently when aspirated?

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    Taste does not have a final [tˢʰ] sound in any dialect of English that I know of. Of course, any final consonant can be exaggerated for various effects (including in cake and keep); but they are not normally so. [tʰeɪstˢ(ʰ)] would almost certainly be /teɪsts/, i.e., tastes. You’re generally more likely to hear the fricativised dental in syllable onset, i.e., [tˢʰeɪst]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 2 '14 at 11:10
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    /t/ is only aspirated [tʰ] at the start of a syllable; at the end of a syllable it is not aspirated, and it is usually accompanied by a 'co-articulated' glottal stop. In some dialects, in fact, the glottal stop replaces the apical (tongue tip) articulation. Moreover, in many speech situations the apical closure may be incomplete, as the tongue moves to articulate the following sound; the 'stopness' of the phoneme is handled entirely by the glottal closure. – StoneyB Jun 2 '14 at 11:41
  • @Stoney That rarely applies in s-clusters. /st/ in coda is often simplified to /s/, but the t is not replaced by a glottal stop. [s?] (with “?” representing the glottal stop—typing on my phone) would be exceedingly hard to pronounce, at least without a following vowel, and [tei?s] the obvious way to make it pronounceable, is never heard as far as I know. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 2 '14 at 11:45
  • Why would they sound the same? There's almost no correlation between spelling and sounds, in English. – Fattie Jun 2 '14 at 12:19
  • The final /t/ closure is often not complete, and the /s/ leaks through. Clusters with fricatives get reversed often enough if this becomes a habit, like ask/ax. – John Lawler Jun 2 '14 at 14:04
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There are five sounds that we classify as /t/ in English: the t's in "top," "stop," "pot," "potter," and "button." They aren't identical, but we do think of them all as /t/. You can test some of the difference by putting your hand in front of your mouth as you say them; the amount of breath coming out is different. These different sounds all classified the same are called "allophones." Google "english allophones" and you can find more on this.

One useful resource is academia.edu's English Allophonic Booklet. Note that /p/ and /k/ do actually have allophones as well. Some of them may be hard to distinguish, but I can hear the difference in the p's in "pal" and "lap."

Why don't all phonemes have the same number of allophones? For one thing, the sounds occur in different parts of the mouth or in different ways. But also: language is arbitrary. Add "s" to an English word and it will be pronounced /s/ ("cats") or /z/ ("dogs"). Add it to a Spanish word and it's /s/ either way.

  • Excellent answer. I would add that different languages have different phonemes as well as allophones -- for example, in English, [p] and [pʰ] are allophones of the same phoneme, but in Korean, /p/ and /pʰ/ are distinct phonemes, so [pul] and [pʰul] are different words entirely. – Sawbones Jun 5 '15 at 14:45

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