It's clear that the pronunciation of /s/ in sin or cell is different from that in words like soul, sore, sardine etc.

In Arabic there are two letters for the sound /s/: س like in sin and ص like in sword or sore etc.

Is there a term to refer to the two different pronunciations of /s/ in English like the distinction between the dark l vs the light l?

  • 2
    I'm not sure the pronunciation is different at all. Surely if it were the symbol /s/ would differ.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 9, 2015 at 8:30
  • 1
    @AndrewLeach No, they're called allophones. This means they have a different pronunciation but represent the same phoneme. Mar 9, 2015 at 13:35
  • It may be that you are influenced by the two s-signs in Arabic script. In my view there is no difference between the two s-signs in pronunciation. The only different thing is after the first s follow frontal vowels (eg i) and after the second s follow dark vowels ( a o ).
    – rogermue
    Mar 9, 2015 at 13:41
  • 1
    @rogermue Actually the perceived pitch of the /s/ noise will be lowered when there's labialisation. You can try it and should be able to hear the sound changing. Start with an /s/ and then pucker your lips as you would for a kiss and then stretch your lips out wide like you would for a smile and repeat a couple of time. You'll hear that the hissing noise gets higher in frequency when you stretch your lips and then lowers as you round them. Mar 9, 2015 at 13:45
  • @AndrewLeach So if you look at a narrow transcription - one which represents the quality of the sounds not just the phonemes, you'll see that the two [s] transcriptions are different. Mar 9, 2015 at 13:47

1 Answer 1


I guess you're right, there is a slight difference, based on the roundedness of the following vowel. For consonants it is called labialization. But in English the degree of labialization is very minimal, and is totally non-phonemic. I wouldn't want to call it a 'labialized s' because that would give the impression that it was far more labialized than it actually is, such as in languages where it is a separate phoneme, such as Lao.

  • 3
    I'm so familiar with the distinction in Arabic I can easily detect it in English too. Thanks for reassuring me that I'm not hallucinating!
    – user15851
    Mar 9, 2015 at 9:08
  • 5
    It's not just about /s/, either. The exact same minute difference is there with /t/, /n/, /k/, /p/, etc. Basically all consonants are slightly palatalised before front vowels and slightly rounded or velarised before back vowels. It's not phonemic for any consonant in English, however. If you speak Irish, on the other hand, you'll have to get used to it, ’cause there it's phonemic for every consonant except /h/. Mar 9, 2015 at 9:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thank you! Oh, care to post this as an answer?
    – user15851
    Mar 9, 2015 at 9:44
  • @misensalem Nah, there's nothing directly relevant to the question there that isn't already in curiousdannii’s answer. It's just a comment. :-) Mar 9, 2015 at 9:57
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Your answer provided more helpful details. I think my L1 made me focus just on the sound s overlooking all the other consonants!
    – user15851
    Mar 9, 2015 at 10:04

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