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Juncture and Aspiration
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Aspiration is another word for breathing.  It is easier to talk if you breathe.  Thus you should always breathe if you intend to talk.  This affects volume also.  If you do not breathe once in a while you will not have the force to speak very loudly and people will have trouble hearing you.  This can be embarrassing or frustrating.

But aspiration has another meaning in language.  It refers to the release of additional breath after a consonant.  For instance, in English, when we pronounce a t, k, or p as the first sound in a word, we always add a puff of air after the consonant.

This does not occur if the consonant is "voiced," that is, if the vocal chords vibrate on the sound. If voiced, these same sounds would be d, g and b.  You can test this by placing the back of your hand in front of your mouth when you say these pairs:
pet, bet
kill, gill
tell, dell

In the middle of words, North American English does not usually aspirate these same consonants. Compare cat and racket.  British and Australian English more commonly adds aspiration to these three consonants even in the middle of word.

Wake up!  Not all of it is this dull!  Besides, there is more.  One day in a church service the Kenyan worship leader stood before us to lead the scripture reading.  He announced, "Let's stand to Responsive Reading...."  So I got my hymnal, turned to the number, and stood -- all alone. The worship leader glanced my way, then calmly and clearly announced, "Yes, let us stand."

I puzzled over this while everyone else (hopefully) listened to the Scripture as they read responsively.  Why was I the first (and almost the only) one to stand?  I think I have figured it out.  It was a problem of aspiration, combined with two other language features, juncture and vowel quality.

Here are the two meanings confused in this situation.  The worship leader meant to say "Let usturn to responsive reading number...."  What I heard was "Let us stand to responsive reading number...."

Aspiration Juncture
Turn is pronounced with an h after the t. Stand is pronounced with no h on the t.  English leaves off the aspiration if s precedes the t, p or k.  Look at the following examples:
Let's stan(d) - t with no breath, because it is preceded by an s, there are also two s's (sounds as one long s).
Let's thurn - t has breath on release, there is only one s.

Vowel quality can also be confusing here, too.  Many languages have only 5 or 7 vowels, not 11 to 15 like English or French.  Look at these examples:
thu(r)n - vowel is high and centered in the mouth: uh
stand - vowel is low and forward, like add, pat
pond - vowel is low and central, like pot, lot (in some dialects the vowel is "deeper," farther back than the vowel in "ah")

Out of all these here is what happened.  I heard "let ston to" (with a vowel like "pond" and no aspiration on the t), which I processed through my language filters as "Let's stand to," assuming the unaspirated st was the beginning of a new word.

First or Second Sound?
Adding the expected h after t will clarify: lets thon indicates that the t is the first sound, not the second.  In let ston, the lack of aspiration shows that the s and t go together to start the second word.  The speaker had no aspiration and used the wrong vowel for the word intended.  Isn't English a fun language!?

Watch for patterns of these kinds of sounds in your target language as you learn.

"Juncture" refers to how we separate words in our continuous flow of speech.  This is related to the double s or single s.  There are other ways of showing "juncture," but we will not look at all of them here.  We sometimes lower volume, or take a breath.  Or we put in a glottal stop -- that is, we close and reopen the vocal chords.  Other features signaling juncture are tone and stress.

Contrasts of Juncture
regular eyes, regularize; juncture shown by change in tone, and a slight lengthening of the last vowel in "regular eyes".
stirrup, stir up; juncture shown by change of stress and tone on "up"
a baddy, a bad D; juncture shown by double d and change of stress
weighin', weigh in; juncture may be shown by glottal stop before second syllable item or by difference in tone and volume of second syllable

In let's stand, juncture is indicated by the double s.
In let's turn, juncture is indicated by the aspiration on the t, which indicates the t is the first sound of a new word.

Look for these clues and patterns in your target language as you learn.  Listen to yourself in your native language to discover the patterns you use subconsciously.  There are many ways we can miscommunicate.

Juncture, tone, stress and aspiration are just some common examples.  When trying to communicate, remember to breathe.  But also watch how you aspirate your consonants.

Also related:
Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
Aspects of Language


First written 28 April 1993
Originally published in Afri-Com, a cross-cultural communication journal, published in Nairobi, Kenya June 1993
This verison written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 23 October 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1993, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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