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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. – snailcar Dec 1 '17 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.

  • 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 '17 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 '17 at 9:18
  • Just a typo. There's only one comparison. I can't see how they are similar at all unless your particular local chinese dialect/accent affects the X pronunciation to the extent of it becoming Sh. But then again, majority of mandarin speakers shouldn't have problems with differentiating them imo. – shoryuu Dec 3 '17 at 9:21
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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 '17 at 9:28
  • For me it's the opposite, I pronounce chinese Shi like the Japanese Shi and my Xi is distinct from Shi. E.g. Shi (Sh-rr) for 十 is very different from my Xi (S-ee) Wang希望. Of the two I think the Sh for Chinese is much closer to Japanese Shi than Xi. But you see it the opposite? That is confusing. I don't suppose there's a confusion of pinyin romanization? If my examples were erroneous romanization do point them out but I don't think I made any. Other than the obvious difficulty to write out the voicings for words like Chinese 十. – shoryuu Dec 3 '17 at 10:14

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