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I've pronounced "p" in "hospital" as "p" for many years and just noticed that some people pronounced it as "b". Please refer to Cambridge English dictionary for its pronunciation and this video on YouTube.

Which one is correct, "p" or "b"? Or maybe both of them are correct?

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    Hmm... I would just try for the "p" sound. If you say it quickly, it'll come out between a "b" and a "p", but if you aim for a "b", you might just hit it, especially if you're speaking more slowly. Then it will sound "off". – anongoodnurse May 1 '15 at 1:56
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    You are (mis)perceiving the lack of aspiration as a voicing marker. This is merely an allophone of phonemic /p/. – tchrist May 1 '15 at 3:53
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    @tchrist is right. The English phoneme /p/ is aspirated initially in pie, pew, pot, but unaspirated in spy, spew, spot. Both of these sounds are voiceless, and the English phoneme /b/ is very much like unaspirated P in spot, except it's voiced. It's hard to hear the difference in these contexts. – John Lawler May 1 '15 at 4:22
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    @tchrist should add his comment as an answer. – Robert Kaucher May 1 '15 at 12:13
  • @RobertKaucher Done. – tchrist May 1 '15 at 13:05
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When the phoneme /p/ occurs at the start of a stressed syllable in English, it is aspirated with a little puff of air, making it a [pʰ]. Contrast hospital with a [p] with husband with a [b]. Hear the difference now? It is subtle, but you can have a loss of aspiration without having to gain voicing at the same time. But people mistake this in hearing.

Per the Wikipedia article on English Phonology:

In most dialects, the fortis stops and affricate /p, t, tʃ, k/ have many different allophones, and are distinguished from the lenis stops and affricate /b, d, dʒ, g/ by several phonetic features. They may be aspirated [pʰ], voiceless unaspirated or tenuis [p⁼], preglottalized [ʔp or [ˀp], or unreleased [p̚].

  • Fortis stops /p, t, k/ are aspirated [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] when they occur at the beginning of a word, as in tomato, trip, or at the beginning of a stressed syllable in the middle of a word, as in potato. They are unaspirated [p, t, k] after /s/, as in stan, span, scan, and at the ends of syllables, as in mat, map, mac.

Because the p in hospital occurs after an s, it cannot be aspirated. Since a /b/ is never aspirated in English, you are misperceiving the loss of aspiration as a signal that you have gone from [p] to [b], but that is not what is happening. Unaspirated [p] is still unvoiced, whereas [b] is voiced.

As Professor Lawler observes in comments, it can be hard to hear the difference in these contexts. Consider the common error of spelling disbursement as *dispursement. There is not much to go on there.

So your p in hospital is still a valid allophone of /p/: [p] not [b].

2

P turns into B very easily, since the difference between them is just unvoiced versus voiced. Folks may substitute one for the other without realizing they've done so... including people like myself who pronounce it as P when we're paying attention

My advice would be to continue to use the P but not worry about it. You'll learn how sloppy you can be and still be understood... but don't deliberately start out sloppy.

(There may also be regional accent effects. One is cited in the comments. Another: my own accent is a mixture of New York and Boston, and when I'm not being careful I'm likely to pronounce it as "hozpital" -- voicing the s, not the p.)

  • @tchrist: what is formally correct and what we do in natural speech often diverge, and can do so consistently when it's become regularized into a regional accent. I ran into something similar when working in Spain; there was a "wrong" pronunciation that the native speakers used without thinking, but which they'd object to when I, with my American accent, started to pick up.) I've added a related example to my answer. However, I accept that this may simply be an allophone; I'm approaching it as a practical amateur rather than linguist. (Paging Dr. Whom...) – keshlam May 1 '15 at 12:16
  • I think you are confusing what is happening here, and then mischaracterizing it as wrong. It is common for English speakers to misperceive an unaspirated unvoiced consonant as being a voiced one when it is truly not. As for Spain, what is the particular “wrongness” you are referring to? Something like hablado > hablao, fuego > fogo, luego > logo, croquetas > cocretas? – tchrist May 1 '15 at 12:22
  • I'm willing to accept the correction and leave this for someone else to answer. (The unexpected sound in Spain was that "un" sometimes slid partway toward "um'".) – keshlam May 1 '15 at 12:25
  • @keshlam That is not an error: it is the only correct way to do it! It is required to pronounce something spelled un perro as though it were spelled um perro in Spanish. Saying un there is wrong. Nasals /n/ and /m/ neutralize before a consonant and are always subject to regressive assimilation in Spanish. Think of it as an archiphoneme |N| with many expressions. Read the fine print about /m/, /n/ going to [m], [ɱ], [n], [ɲ], [ŋ], [ɴ]. You are making a similar mischaracterization here about English. – tchrist May 1 '15 at 12:34
  • I think there was more going on than that, but it's several decades ago so I can't provide a specific example. Shrug... – keshlam May 1 '15 at 12:43
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Hold a tissue paper or hand in front of your mouth to practice the different allophones [p] and [b]. The puff of air moves the tissuer paper or you could feel confirms that you are pronouncing the phoneme /p/ i.e. aspirated /pʰ/ as in pen, pet, people etc...

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    You didn't say anything about the 'p' in hospital. (i.e. that in 'sp-', the 'p' is unaspirated. – Mitch Jul 15 '20 at 14:53

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