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I've had this question for several months now, and haven't been able to find a satisfactory answer online.

The Japanese し and the Mandarin "xi", as in 西, are listed equivalently as [ɕ] in the IPA.

However, my girlfriend and I can fairly clearly tell the difference between these two sounds, even after trying to isolate the consonant in the above words. (She is a native Japanese speaker learning Mandarin, and I am the opposite.)

Are we imagining things, or is there actually a slight difference in [ɕ] between languages? If the latter, are they marked as identical in the IPA because no single language differentiates between the Mandarin [ɕ] and the Japanese [ɕ]?

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    Great question! I hope you get a good answer here, but if not, you may also consider trying the Linguistics Stack Exchange site.
    – user1478
    Dec 1, 2017 at 21:16

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As with all IPA transcriptions, for a consonant to be regarded as the voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant ɕ, it only needs to fulfil certain conditions (which are listed under the 'Features' section in that Wikipedia link). This does not mean that the set of conditions reduce to a unique phoneme; it is highly possible that the variety of actual sounds fulfilled by the transcription ɕ can be differentiated by someone with more sensitive hearing abilities. The following is a comparison between Mandarin and Japanese :

As a native speaker of Mandarin, I cannot tell the difference between the consonants, but if you can tell the difference, I suspect that you may hear subtle differences in the pronunciation of ɕ in the other language audio examples in that Wikipedia link.

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  • How do you not tell the difference between the X and the Sh sound difference from both? Unless you are the kind of chinese who pronounces your X until it sounds like an Sh I think they are very distinct.
    – shoryuu
    Dec 3, 2017 at 9:15
  • I don't understand what you're saying. You started off by comparing X with Sh then ended by comparing X with S. Which one is it?
    – dROOOze
    Dec 3, 2017 at 9:18
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    I have no particular local dialect or accent. I don't find them at all different, and IPA agrees. I also don't understand your comparison, as the Mandarin pinyin transcription "sh" sounds nothing like the initial Japanese consonant of "shi", while the pinyin transcription "x" sounds highly similar, at least to me. I've also had a native Japanese teacher who once complimented me by saying that I "have no accent", and I don't pronounce Chinese "x" and Japanese "sh" differently, so if there is a difference then I'd wager that it is very small, or it is you who has the incorrect pronunciation.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 3, 2017 at 9:28
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    Pinyin X and pinyin Sh are very different. Pinyin X and Japanese Sh are almost identical. Could you clarify which one you're asking about? I suspect part of the confusion here is due to us misunderstanding one-another. Note that pinyin x (e.g. 西), pinyin s (e.g. 四), and pinyin sh (e.g. 誰) are completely different sounds, and native Mandarin (mainland) speakers, myself included, will clearly articulate the difference.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 3, 2017 at 12:08
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    So, my current understanding now is that you would pronounce pinyin 'x' and pinyin 's' identically. That's okay; It's impossible to confuse, because syllables which start with standard mandarin 'x' and syllables which start with standard mandarin 's' never overlap in their trailing part anyway. It's a redundant difference from the point of information theory, so even us mainlanders won't misunderstand you guys.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 3, 2017 at 19:32

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