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In my first language (Cantonese), we do not have voiced consonant sounds like Japanese. Therefore I have been struggling with the voiced and voiceless differences in Japanese. I wonder if that Japanese speakers use voicing distinction for differentiating, for example, the が and か, instead of aspiration distinction like Cantonese speakers do, then would ありがとう and ありかどう sound the same when they are whispered? (i.e. pure aspiration and no voicing)

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    As a native Japanese speaker, I would say voiced consonants are clearly different from unvoiced consonants even I'm whispering, but I cannot explain this with phonological terms. This question should be relevant: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/2340
    – naruto
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 2:18
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    @naruto I suspect this is like the belief that if you tap out the rhythm of a famous song, other people will easily get it! I mean, how can they not hear in their heads what you're obviously hearing? Come on, ta ta ta taaaa? Hello? ... Beethoven's Fifth, you dummy! :) We understand whispered speech in spite of voiced and unvoiced consonants being conflated because of massive amounts of context, together with working out the most plausible interpretations. You know that what you're hearing as "class of water" must be "glass of water".
    – Kaz
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 17:00
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    @Kaz Of course context is always important, but that does not necessarily mean class and glass are pronounced the same when whispered. Many Japanese people use context to understand most English without being able to hear the difference between light and right, but that does not mean they are pronounced the same.
    – naruto
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 18:31
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    We would first define “whispering”. This question clearly assumes it means complete devoicing. If it doesn’t have to mean that, there are ways to make sure other people can distinguish voiced and voiceless consonants while “whispering,” of course.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 2:41
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    @aguijonazo I doubt such a definition would help. OP seems to be an ordinary language learner, not a phonological expert. From what I can see, OP is simply asking about how Japanese people whisper in reality (which may be quite complex), not what "complete devoicing" would sound like in purely phonological contexts. FWIW, I, at least, cannot even imagine what "complete devoicing" is like.
    – naruto
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 3:32

4 Answers 4

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As long as they are in a quiet room, Japanese people can hear the difference between whispered か/が, た/だ, さ/ざ, etc., although the distinction is slightly harder. I also confirmed this with my family. The voiced versions sounded somewhat more "coarse" at the beginning of the syllable, and the difference was clear enough to my ears.

Experts agree that it is generally possible to distinguish voiced and unvoiced consonants even in whispers. Basically features other than voicing are used for discrimination, but the strategy may vary from language to language or from person to person:

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They are extremely similar. That said, I notice two minor differences:

  • if you were to enunciate the か, it causes a slight stop in your breath, while the (mid-word) が never would

  • at least for me, が is articulated very slightly further back, in my throat, compared to か which is more like at the back of my soft palette.

For these reasons it seems easy enough to differentiate say 画家 from 蚊が even when whispered.

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と and ど might sound the same.

Though this probably won’t help you differentiate voiced and voiceless consonants, が in that position would probably sound more like fricative [x] than plosive [k]. At least that’s how I would pronounce it being a speaker of a Western dialect in which /g/ is rarely nasalized to [ŋ] unlike in "standard" Japanese but may become fricative [ɣ]. I’m not sure how people who nasalize /g/ would pronounce it when whispering. A voiceless nasal seems impossible to me.

金メダル and 銀メダル, where /k/ and /g/ appear at the beginning, might sound the same, though.

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    It is an important point to mention that the word-internal /g/ is rarely a plosive. Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 5:00
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Very interesting question! When I whisper to myself, the two do sound different--what else might be going on here, is that when が appears between two vowels, it can become soft (slightly spirantized), which accentuates this distinction when whispered.

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  • If the voiced, unaspirated が is spirantized, namely pronounced with more breath, shouldn't it sound more like the aspirated か? How does it then accentuate the distinction between them?
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 21:18

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