For example, how is 'stop' pronounced differently from 'sdop', in terms of tongue position and other aspects?

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    The answer to your title question is that the unaspirated 't' (after s) is unvoiced and the 's' in 'sd' is really a voiced 'z' (if you think of the features of individual phonemes as entirely binary). Or you can think of there being a continuum from aspirated unvoiced alveolar to unaspirated unvoiced alveolar to unaspirated voiced alveolar. Or you can think XY as an alveolar fricative followed by an alveolar unaspirated stop, and voicing starting after Y (st^h), in between X and Y (st), or before the X (zd), and continuing on. – Mitch Dec 22 '16 at 15:00
  • Can you tell us what your linguistics/speech science background is? That will help formulate an answer that will be most meaningful to you. Some of the terms in answers so far would not make sense to a person who is not in a speech/linguistics related field. – Katherine Lockwood Dec 22 '16 at 20:22
  • Yes, I understand terms like aspiration, fricative, voiced, etc. Thank you for your careful consideration! – Kent Tong Dec 23 '16 at 3:26

The contrast between /t/ and /d/ is neutralized for English speakers after an /s/ in the same syllable. In some ways, the plosive in word-initial sC clusters is like a (phonologically) voiced, or lenis plosive, and in other ways it is like a (phonologically) voiceless, or fortis plosive. There isn't any possible contrast. As long as the /s/ is phonetically fully voiceless, "sdop" would sound like "stop".

For example, using another pair of voiced-voiceless consonants (k and g) we can see that many English speakers find "disgust" and "discussed" sound basically the same. Similiarly, "disdain" to me starts out about the same as "distinguish". If you pronounced it as "disdinguish", I doubt I would notice (while I certainly would notice if you pronounced it as "dis-tinguish" with an aspirated t).

Relevant blog post by Geoff Lindsey: Sblended (exdended) (english speech services)

Relevant paper: The phonological status of English oral stops after tautosyllabic /s/: evidence from speakers’ classificatory behaviour, by José Antonio Monpeán González.

Of especial relevance is González's discussion on page 88-89 of experiments by Ohala (1983) and Sawusch and Juscyk (1981) where subjects interpreted the same phonetic sound as a voiced stop when not preceded by [s], and as a voiceless stop when it was preceded by [s].

  • I've heard that if you whisper words, there is no voicing. So, if one whispers stop and sdop they should sound the same... Do you find that? – AmE speaker Dec 22 '16 at 15:25
  • @Clare: It depends on how I decide to pronounce "sdop". It's not really obvious how to do it – sumelic Dec 22 '16 at 15:30
  • Well, yeah initial sd- is abnormal in English, and one can elongate the word sdop; but I get the no voicing effect if I whisper disdain and it sounds the same as 'distain' whispered. And, the answer to the question on Quora Why is it that even if I whisper I can still hear the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds? deals somewhat with what I'm talking about and the issue in general. – AmE speaker Dec 22 '16 at 15:36

/d/ is more weakly articulated than /t/, and it causes lengthening of a preceding vowel in the same syllable. These differences persist even when /d/ is devoiced for some reason and they are general to the other oral stops b, g. The /d/ in a hypothetical */sdap/ would be weakly articulated. Even though word final /d/ is devoiced in some dialects of English, "pod" still sounds different than "pot", because the /d/ of "pod" is lenis and it lengthens the preceding vowel.

  • Is British English different from American English in this regard? I looked up an audio dictionary for 'paper' and the American pronunciation is exactly like /peɪ-bər/ where /b/ is unvoiced, but the British one is more like /peɪ-pə/ where /p/ sounds like aspirated. What is going on? – Kent Tong Dec 23 '16 at 3:32
  • @KentTong, I don't know. – Greg Lee Dec 23 '16 at 10:28
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    @KentTong I don’t believe any native speaker pronounces paper as [ˈpʰeɪbɚ]. Minimal pairs exist like taper and tabor that show the voicing distinction is not neutralized. I predict that your own L1 language views aspiration as a phonemically distinguishing trait, and so you are imagining that you’re hearing different phonemes in English when you hear aspirational variations that would make two sounds fall into phonemically distinct buckets in your own L1 tongue. However, English does not work that way. – tchrist Dec 25 '16 at 0:32
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    @tchrist, He didn't say there was a pronunciation with [b]. He refers to unvoiced /b/. – Greg Lee Dec 25 '16 at 3:34

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