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I checked that their pronunciations are /ster/ and /der/ But I can't hear the difference between them! Can anyone tell me the difference and how to pronounce them separately?

marked as duplicate by 200_success, tchrist, Drew, Misti, Hellion Mar 3 '15 at 17:46

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    There won’t necessarily be any difference. Initial /d/ is usually at least partially voiced, but it can also be unvoiced, in which case it is exactly the same as the unaspirated [t] in stair. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 2 '15 at 17:10
  • Would people be able to hear the difference? Or can they feel the difference when they pronounce? Thank you! – FindingNemo Mar 2 '15 at 17:14
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    If we assume that dare is being said in such a way that the /d/ is not voiced, then people will think they’re able to hear the difference because they know that stare has a /t/ and dare has a /d/—and the third player, tare has an initial /t/, which is forcefully aspirated and slightly affricated, thus very different from the other two. However, if you record stare and dare and use a computer to cut away the [s] bit of stare, then people will almost always be completely unable to tell the difference. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 2 '15 at 17:17
  • Some people would hear the difference right away, and others wouldn't know they were hearing anything different. In English /t/ and /d/ neutralize in many environments in speech, and after initial /s/ is one of them. We deal with this by spelling and transcribing this as /st/, but in fact the allophone of /t/ used there is virtually indistinguishable from the allophone of /d/ that would appear in initial /sd/, just as the allophone of /t/ that shows up in many speakers bottle is in fact a glottal stop. Phonemes are generalizations; individual phonation is individual. – John Lawler Mar 2 '15 at 17:29
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    @Hot Licks: the OP is not asking about the difference between "stair" and "dare" (there's an /s/ in one that's missing from the other); he's asking about the difference between the /t/ and the /d/ in those words. Namely, the difference between "it's stark" and "it's dark", which are much harder to tell apart. – Peter Shor Mar 2 '15 at 21:03

The initial consonants in ‘tear’ (the verb) and ‘dare’ are distinguished mainly by the fact that initial /t/ is unvoiced and slightly aspirated while initial /d/ is slightly voiced and not aspirated. The /t/ in ‘stair’ is not aspirated, so it is distinguished from /d/ only with regard to voicing. The voicing of /d/ is however so slight that there is virtually no audible difference between the two sounds.

  • English doesn't phonemically distinguish aspirated and unaspirated sounds, but it can often be more obvious than voicing, which results in tricky examples like this where the [t] and [d] are so very similar. – curiousdannii Mar 3 '15 at 8:08

The two sounds are very similar, but /t/ is the unvoiced equivalent of /d/. Many languages have both sounds. Listen for the voiced component as you would when dealing with /b/ vs. /p/, /g/ vs. /k/, and other such consonant sounds.

  • Would people be able to hear the difference? Or can they feel the difference when they pronounce the word themselves? Thank you! – FindingNemo Mar 2 '15 at 17:14
  • Try practicing with a friend who speaks English natively on words where the only difference is that consonant: dare/tear, dale/tale, dart/tart, dell/tell, dent/tent, dip/tip, dowel/towel, drain/train, dune/tune. Can you hear the difference when your friend says these words? Can you feel the difference when you pronounce these words correctly? – Paul Rowe Mar 2 '15 at 17:24
  • I was considering fdb's answer and realized that, as in other languages, the difference is often distinguished by context. Of the word pairs I provided above, you likely wouldn't be able to replace one with the other in a sentence and have it make sense. Don't worry: English isn't the only language that does this. – Paul Rowe Mar 2 '15 at 17:27

A canonical, normal /d/ will be accompanied by vocal fold vibration. Canonical /t/ has no vocal fold vibration. This means it will have no discernible pitch. It won't be "voiced".

Normally, /t/ is aspirated at the beginning of a stressed syllable. It is this aspiration that tells us that it is a /t/ and not a /d/. The /d/ at the beginning of words will be partially devoiced if it's preceded by a pause, or by an unvoiced sound. This means that, generally, we do not tell these phonemes apart by their voicing in this position. It is the gap before the voicing of the following vowel or approximant which tells us whether we are hearing a /t/ or /d/.

However, when /t/ is preceded by /s/ in a syllable, there is no aspiration of the /t/. This means that to all intents and purposes it will sound like a /d/ to a native speaker. Of course, within a word a native speaker will never mistake this sound for a /d/. Why? Because word initial /s/ is never followed by a voiced stop in the same syllable in English. In other words the combinations /sb/, /sd/ and /sg/ are not allowed in English. We know therefore that we are hearing /sp/, /st/ or /sk/. Nonetheless, however, if we record a native speaker saying /stair/ and cut out the /s/ segment and play back the rest of the word, a majority of native speakers will understand the word as 'dare', /deə/, and not tear, /teə/, because of the lack of aspiration.

There are, however, circumstances when we will clearly be able to distinguish the /t/ in an /st/ combination from a /d/. When /d/ occurs between two vowels it will be fully voiced. So in the sentence:

  • I did it for a dare

... the /d/ in "dare" will be completely voiced and very different from the /t/ in "stair".

To address the Original Poster's query, if they don't aspirate the /t/ in 'stair', then their pronunciation will sound excellent to a native speaker! They should pronounce their /d/ in the way they normally do.

[I have used British English transcription as used by Wells in the LPD for this post].

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    I should prefer to say only that a pretonic, intervocalic /d/ like the one in a dare may/can be completely voiced. Personally, I hardly voice initial /d/ completely anywhere (except expressively, as in duh!). But some people do. I think the only context where complete voicing is almost ubiquitous is after a long stressed vowel or a posttonic schwa. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 3 '15 at 2:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Interesting. I suppose we'd need to measure it to find out what normally goes on. The story above's the one you'll find in Gimson. I would say though that it's a bit odd that intervocalic /t/ is often a voiced tap if intervocalic /d/ is becoming devoiced. Usually devoicing spreads from one segment into another, in other words it's normally considered an assimilatory process - doesn't men it is though! :) – Araucaria Mar 3 '15 at 14:04
  • But intervocalic /t/ is only a flap in more or less the same contexts. Between short stressed vowel and unstressed/reduced vowel, I personally often flap/glottalise /t/ and at most partially voice /d/, but that's the only context I can think of where the difference is so minimal. Elsewhere, it's either (voiced) flap vs. ([semi-]voiced) plosive or (unvoiced) aspirated plosive vs. ([semi-]voiced) unaspirated plosive. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 3 '15 at 14:42

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