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Are /ɕ/ and /ʑ/ simply shorthand for /sʲ/ and /zʲ/ as with many of the possible diacritic combinations in IPA or are they different sounds? If they are the same, is there any good reason to use one over the other? If not, how are they different?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The short answer is that they are different. The former refers to alveolo-palatal articulation. The latter refers to palatal release of the consonant.

The pure palatal segments [ɕ] and [ʑ] have a constant alveolo-palatal place of articulation. The palatalized alveolar segments [sʲ] and [zʲ] have alveolar articulation with a palatal release. The two core sounds (palatal versus alveolar) are very clearly distinguishable and several languages do have [ɕ]-[s] minimal pairs.

As far as I know, there are no languages with ?[ɕ]-[sʲ] minimal pairs; i.e., there are no languages that make a semantic contrast based purely on palatalization onset time. That's not to say the difference is not noticeable. Mandarin Chinese has the alveolo-palatal fricative in its standard phonology, but it is common to see delayed palatalization onset these days, and it is seen as a dialectical (especially cosmopolitan urban) marker as well as a non-native dialectical marker (the delayed palatalization as well as voiced palatalization as in [sj] is extremely common for learners of Chinese whose L1 is a language that lacks palatal obstruents).

It is always worth note in cases like these, however, that since there is no contrastive difference between the two in any language, there is no real canonical difference between the two. There'd be nothing stopping you from transcribing speech using a convention where the palatal release diacritic was just taken to mean constant palatal articulation.

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FWIW Russian has both underlying [ɕ:] <щ> and [sʲ] <с>/_{е,я,ю,и}. E.g. сель 'torrent', щель 'crack, slit'. <щ> is often described as representing a geminate, but it still shows how these palatalization onset time could be contrastive. (I do not know enough about Russian phonetics to conclusively say this, though.) –  user325 Jan 22 '12 at 9:00
Polish has a chain of [s : ś : š], [z : ź : ž], [c : ć : č] and [ʒ : ʒ́ : ǯ]. [s´ : ś] are not phonemic but there is a dialectal differentiation. It's [ś] in the literary language and [s´] in the Eastern dialects. The difference is immediately obvious for any native speaker. –  kamil-s Mar 6 '12 at 17:16
At least for Russian and Ukrainian, /ɕ/ is treated by their carriers (including me) as /ʃʲ/ (or /ʂʲ/), but not /sʲ/, they differ in the same manner as /ʃ/ (/ʂ/) differs from /s/. The same for /ʑ/, it's /ʒʲ/. (This doesn't include issue of consonant length.) –  Netch Nov 10 '12 at 15:39
@Netch This answer apparenbtly confuses [ɕ] with [ç]. I wonder why it still receives upvotes. –  Anixx Nov 15 '12 at 1:21
However, I do disagree with the part "there are no languages with ?[ɕ]-[sʲ] minimal pairs" - see comments above re: this contrast in some Slavic languages. –  Alex B. Nov 15 '12 at 5:41

They are completely different. [ɕ] (which is another way to write [ʃʲ]) is a palatal variant of English "sh" [ʃ], sound while [sʲ] is a palatal variant of "s".

These sounds are phonemically different in the majority of European languages. In English, where palatalization is not phonemic, [ʃʲ] is allophone of [ʃ] and [sʲ] is allophone of [s]. A minimal pair is "sh*t" vs. "sit".

The answer by Steven Xu apparently confuses [ɕ] with [ç].

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Hwo downvotes this? do you really think they are identical sounds? LOL. –  Anixx Nov 14 '12 at 23:07
There is already an accepted answer to this question from more than a year ago. It is highly up-voted, well-composed, and well-commented. It describes both phonetic detail and the phonology of the two sounds. It adds impressionistic accounts of speaker intuitions and a discussion of typography. I fail to see what your answer adds. Other than attitude, which is of course interesting. –  lapropriu Nov 14 '12 at 23:28
@lapropriu well, it says "As far as I know, there are no languages with ?[ɕ]-[sʲ] minimal pairs;" - this is completely wrong, these sounds are phonemically different in the majority of European languages, in all languages where these sounds exist at all (even in English where palatalization is not phonemic, there is difference between [ʃ] and [s] which have allophones [ʃʲ] and [sʲ] as in shit and sit). –  Anixx Nov 14 '12 at 23:31
This is not what you say in your answer. But if this is what you meant to add to the conversation, perhaps this should be added as a comment on Steven Xu's answer. Ideally also noting the other comments there. –  lapropriu Nov 14 '12 at 23:37
@lapropriu I updated the answer if it was not clear enough. –  Anixx Nov 14 '12 at 23:40

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