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Now I understand that although all the morae mentioned in the title are written in Hepburn as "sha shi shu she sho", they are actually palatalized and sound quite different (the little や makes it clear). In fact since I speak Mandarin Chinese natively, they sound completely different since in Mandarin the Hepburn "sh" and English "sh" are two distinct phonemes.

Now in my Japanese class, the TAs are native English speakers though the instructor is from Japan. When the TAs are asked to read passages, the teacher occasionally corrects them for pitch accent, the う vowels, and らりるれろ, but never for the (to my ears) totally Englishified pronunciation of し. In fact しゃ is pronounced exactly the same as the English word "shah" - it isn't even pronounced "shyah".

I also notice some Japanese singers randomly pronounce しゃ as "shah" with no consistency at all. Then again, song Japanese seems to be weird (を retaining the "wo" sound, らりるれろ often using an "l" sound). My question is, are the two sh's completely indistinguishable to Japanese ears? Even when correcting the students the Japanese teacher picks up on tons of small mistakes (mispronouncing the "u" as "oo", Korean people failing to pronounce the voiced stops, wrong pitch accent) but never picks out the clearly wrong "sh" that happens quite a lot.

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Do some Mandarin speakers pronounce Pinyin "sh" in a non-retroflex way? I think I've heard that from some native speakers, and your question sorta suggests that as well. A bit off topic, but I'm curious. –  dainichi Jan 31 '13 at 5:58
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The Japanese "sh" sound is not the same as the Mandarin "sh" sound either. It's actually the sound that is denoted by <x> in pinyin. –  Zhen Lin Jan 31 '13 at 8:21
    
@Zhen Lin: I do not think that the OP has ever claimed that the “sh” in Japanese is the same sound as pinyin “sh” in Mandarin. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 31 '13 at 18:41
    
There is no "she" in Hepburn romanization. "しぇ" cannot be represented in Hepburn romanization. –  user18597 Feb 1 '13 at 2:42
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@user18597: The correct use of Hepburn romanization is probably irrelevant to the question, but the Hepburn romanization for extended katakana contains “she” for シェ. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 1 '13 at 3:00
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1 Answer

up vote 10 down vote accepted

(Warning: I do not know phonetics in general, and I do not speak Mandarin. I am writing this answer while consulting Wikipedia. Although I am trying my best to write an accurate answer, you should take it with a grain of salt, especially with my use of technical terms and with statements about Mandarin.)

My question is, are the two sh's completely indistinguishable to Japanese ears?

Completely? Probably no. But they are almost indistinguishable to most native speakers of Japanese.

In both English and Japanese, there is only one phoneme realized by voiceless postalveolar fricatives (the same holds for voiced postalveolar fricatives):

(The primary difference between these two consonants is the shape of the tongue.)

Therefore, most native speakers of English are not trained to distinguish different postalveolar fricatives, and they pronounce the consonant of しゃ, しゅ, しぇ, しょ as [ʃ] when they speak Japanese. This does not cause a problem for comprehension because we (native speakers of Japanese) are also not trained to distinguish different postalveolar fricatives. We probably notice something different in their pronunciation and recognize it as “Japanese with English accents,” but that’s all. Probably the same thing happens when native speakers of Japanese speak English.

(I wrote “しゃ, しゅ, しぇ, しょ” above. What happens when a native speaker of English pronounces し in Japanese? I cannot tell from my experience, but if he/she gets the vowel [i] in Japanese right, probably he/she will necessarily pronounce [ʃ] in a more palatalized way, resulting in [ɕ], even if he/she is not aware of it.)

This situation may look strange to you if [ʃ] and [ɕ] belong to distinct phonemes in your native tongue: how can anyone be unaware of the obvious difference between [ʃ] and [ɕ]? But the notion of “similar sounds” is surprisingly different from one language to another. For example, many native speakers of Japanese have trouble distinguishing [s] and [θ] when we speak English, and native speakers of English might wonder how anyone can be unaware of the obvious difference between [s] and [θ]. (I guess the same example applies to native speakers of Mandarin.) As another example, many native speakers of English have trouble distinguishing きょう (今日) and きよう (器用) when they speak Japanese, and native speakers of Japanese might wonder how anyone can be unaware of the obvious difference between them.

By the way, “sh” in Mandarin is not [ʃ] (“sh” in English), either. According to Wikipedia, it is retroflex fricative [ʂ], and therefore it has yet another tongue shape. If you do not notice the difference between Mandarin [ʂ] and English [ʃ], that is probably because of the same reason why native speakers of English and native speakers of Japanese do not notice the difference between English [ʃ] and Japanese [ɕ].

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Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwanese_Mandarin#Taiwanese-influenced says that retroflex sounds aren't used much in Taiwanese Mandarin. I do not know if OP is Taiwanese, but even if he isn't, this could be one reason that the retroflex-ness is considered allophonic. –  dainichi Jan 31 '13 at 6:08
    
Well, I'm not Taiwanese (I'm from Beijing). Even though I speak Mandarin natively and all my family speak super-standard Mandarin, I'm noted for having a slight "personal accent" and whenever I need to read something in public I always struggle a bit with the vowels and "sh", not to mention always pronouncing "t" as dental, not alveolar. I can easily imagine not distinguishing between "shee" and し but I can't imagine not distinguishing between "shah" and しゃ. "shyah" seems better. –  user54609 Jan 31 '13 at 15:17
    
@Eric Dong: My explanation applies also to the cases where native speakers of English pronounce しゃ, しゅ, しぇ, しょ in Japanese (and actually it may not apply to the cases where they pronounce し in Japanese). I modified the answer. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 31 '13 at 16:32
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I used to tell other missionaries that we sound to Japanese people like Sean Connery does to us when we use postalveolars :) –  Nate Glenn Feb 5 '13 at 18:10
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