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I'm reading The Sounds of Japanese (Vance 2008), which is an introductory textbook in Japanese articulatory phonetics. The first chapter lays out some basic concepts in phonetics, and although the book is essentially about Japanese, the author gives some English examples to illustrate those concepts (the variety described being "United States newscaster English", according to the preface).

Vance uses the English [ʃ] and [ʒ] as examples in a section on secondary articulation (p.20):

Another common secondary articulation is labialization, which is simply lip rounding superimposed on a consonant articulation. The English lamino-postalveolar fricatives [ʃ] and [ʒ] are usually labialized, as you can see just by watching a native speaker pronounce words like dish and beige. The IPA symbol for labialization is a small raised w after the appropriate consonant symbol, so we could transcribe dish and beige very narrowly as [dɪʃʷ] and [be͜iʒʷ].

And sure enough, when I asked native speakers around me (all Californian) to pronounce these words, I saw (very obvious) lip rounding. But I'm from Illinois, and I don't think I round my lips in dish or beige. This got me curious, so I asked other speakers online, most of whom were from Northern Illinois or Wisconsin, and none of them rounded their lips, either. (Two took videos, but I'm afraid I can't share them here.)

I'd like to talk about the differences the between Japanese [ɕ] and [ʑ] and the English [ʃ] and [ʒ], and one of the textbook differences seems to be this labialization. I'd like to know how widespread it actually is so I can write an accurate description. But I'm afraid my poll wasn't very scientific, so I'm not sure I can draw any conclusions from it.

I have one textbook on English phonetics, A Course in Phonetics, 6th ed. (Ladefoged & Johnson 2011). On page 67, the authors write:

The English fricatives /ʃ, ʒ/ are strongly labialized, and the fricatives /s, z/ are slightly labialized.

From this description it seems like it should be a universal feature, but it doesn't seem to be.

How widespread or common is labialization of [ʃ] and [ʒ] in English dish and beige?

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  • Just a thought from a non-expert: is it possible that Californian speakers tend to hold their mouths half-rounded by default, the way French-speakers do? I'm thinking of the way the French tend to enunciate shwa rather like American 'uh'/British 'er'. – David Garner Nov 19 '15 at 9:23
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    How can we try to answer this? Do we need to enumerate dialects? Also, what are the contexts; initial, medial, final? quality of vowels before or after? – Mitch Nov 20 '15 at 3:54
  • data point: here in Minnesota (Northern European) no rounding. – AmI Dec 9 '15 at 20:15
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This article implies that labialization is universal in English for those sounds, and cites a number of authoritative-sounding references (which you might want to investigate) – and I've been unable to locate any contrary views. On the other hand, if you yourself have found otherwise, you may be on the verge of a major upset to the conventional wisdom on the subject.

But note the distinction made in the article between "tight rounded (/w/)" and "slight rounded (/ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, initial /r/)". It could be that you're just seeing a gradient, not a complete absence of rounding.

Apparently in Tillamook a rounded sound is created with a cupping of the tongue instead of a rounding of the lips, so perhaps it's not inconceivable, but that doesn't seem to be what's going on in English.

Regardless of the anecdotal support for your proposition in the comments here, you might want to post your videos to be examined by others as to the amount of lip-rounding, if any, to see if it might be worth going further in your investigation.

Admittedly, I myself can do it both ways, but completely non-rounded seems very forced and unnatural (which of course is as anecdotal and unobjective as the other personal comments here).

Of course I may be overthinking my own pronunciation, and your subjects may be overthinking theirs, which is just to say that it would be a complicated matter to answer exactly how common the non-rounding phenomenon is (or even whether it exists at all), probably requiring a scientific (perhaps double-blind, and certainly cross-population) study that didn't focus the participants' minds on the particular sounds of interest, potentially influencing the results.

For example, you might want to take video of them saying a list of words to which those two, dish and beige, (or similar words) seemed to be random additions. And you might want to add additional parts to the study, with different parameters – e.g. an exercise in which those sounds were embedded in full sentences, with different sounds coming before and after them – to see if that made a difference.

And that study would presumably have to have peer-reviewed results, with the video available to be assessed by objective third-party observers.

I await the results!

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Well, I don't round them. I'm from Ohio, originally. I looked on the net and found a handout for a course at Simon Fraser University (Canada west coast?) which says the palato-alveolars are labialized (handout). That's all I've come up with.

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