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In English, there is a clear difference between the "a" in "at," and the "a" in "father." I described the difference by saying that the "a" in "father" is "harder" than the other one.

The German word "Vater" is actually pronounced with an "f," that is, "fater." I described the consonant "f" as being "harder" than the consonant "v," at least in English.

Did I correctly used the term "harder" in these contexts? If not, how are the differences in sound best described.

This question was inspired by my answer to this one on another SE site.

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    No, there is no general meaning to these. They are just impressionistic terms. The difference between the vowels in "at" and "father" are generally described in linguistic terms in the following way: the first one tends to be more fronted and more raised, while the second tends to be backer and lower, and in some varieties, longer. The main difference between the consonants "f" and "v" is that the first one is voiceless and the second one is voiced. – brass tacks Nov 18 '15 at 22:32
  • In terms of voicing, you have a problem if you say that voiceless fricatives are harder than voiced ones: in standard German the letter "s" generally represents a voiced sound /z/ at the start of a syllable (like in the word sehen), while the equivalent English words usually have the voiceless /s/. Furthermore, most German words spelled with "v" but pronounced with /f/ correspond to English words spelled and pronounced with "f" /f/ (like Vater, father; or Vogel, fowl) so there is actually no difference here in pronunciation between German and English. – brass tacks Nov 18 '15 at 22:36
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The terms "hard" and "soft" aren't used in linguistics; instead, we describe the difference in terms of the difference in production (the vowel of "father" is a back vowel transcribed as [a] or [ɑ], and the vowel of "at" is a front vowel transcribed as [æ]). In the case of English "f" and "v" (or German "v" and "w"), [f] is voiceless and [v] is voiced. There are a certain number of ordinary terms that get pressed into service in describing sets of sounds, for example hard and soft, slender and broad, light and heavy, clear and muddy, which generally express some kind of positive / negative attitude towards one of the sounds. Usually, the negative term is used to described the "less ordinary" sound. For instance, voiced consonants like b,z may be called "heavy" as opposed to p,s which may be called "light". And it turns out that voiced consonants are somewhat less "ordinary" than voiceless consonants. But there aren't any standards for using these terms in ordinary language, thus when someone says that a certain sound is "hard", they could be referring to anything, though presumably something that they don't like.

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There is no universal technical meaning for 'hard' and 'soft' when it comes to sounds. You will not find it used by professional phoneticians.

However, within many languages, there are pedagogic conventions for describing hard and soft sounds that do not translate across languages. This is often done in an overlap with orthography.

For example, in English people speak about the 'hard' and 'soft' 'c' to differentiate between /k/ in 'cup' and /s/ in cell.

This is very different from Slavic languages where 'soft' and 'hard' consonants describe pairs that are palatalized or not. As in /d/ vs. /dʲ/.

Sometimes, this applies to vowels. In Czech, for instance, there is a traditional distinction between 'hard y' and 'soft i' which is now only relevant to orthography - the preceding consonant is palatalized for soft i. However, this refers to a perceived difference in the darkness of the sound which is still preserved in Russian. Czechs will also describe 'ü' in German as hard y.

As you can see, there's no easy way to map the idea of 'hard' and 'soft' when it comes to sounds across languages. However, there seem to be certain tendencies in how people describe sounds across cultures. Certain voiced plosives are more likely to be seen as dark or hard whereas affricates are more likely to be seen as soft or light while voiceless stops may be seen as sharp. This is a whole area of study called 'sound symbolism' or 'phonosemantics'.

The way you used 'hard' and 'soft' is very idiosyncratic but in the context of a conversation, it may be understood by people. But only if there's enough context.

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  • Well. "Very different" is a matter of opinion. Historically, the distinction between soft and hard 'c' and 'g' originated in a palatalization contrast. The sounds have evolved a lot since then. – brass tacks Nov 20 '15 at 4:58
  • Good point. There are other similar hard/soft contrasts in Slavic that are not palatalised by have there origins there. Again, possible that there's some universal tendency here but I have no idea how well it would generalize across more languages (not my primary area). – Dominik Lukes Nov 20 '15 at 10:53
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In linguistics we refer to the placement of the vowel in the mouth, high or low, and front or back, as well as the tenseness or laxity of vowels. The latter refers to what we commonly think of as hard and soft, or long and short vowels. An example would be the high, front vowels /i/ and /I/, as in meet and mitt. However the a in at, and the a in father are different vowels entirely, /æ/ and /a/. As mentioned in the previous answers, f and v differ in voicing: v is voiced, and f is not.

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