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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?

4 Answers 4

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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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  • 8
    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, 2012 at 9:00
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    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, 2012 at 17:16
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    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, 2012 at 15:39
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    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, 2012 at 5:41
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    @Anixx IIRC, "alveolo-palatal" can describe 'щ' but not 'хь', so I don't understand why you mention [ç] here.
    – Netch
    Nov 17, 2012 at 7:31
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Per the official IPA definitions, ɕ and ʑ stand for alveolo-palatal fricatives, and sʲ and zʲ stand for palatalized alveolar fricatives.

The official definitions are vague and so do not fully specify the phonetic description of the sounds that are being transcribed. So it's certainly possible for /ɕ/ and /ʑ/ and /sʲ/ and /zʲ/ to represent different sounds when transcribing a particular language.

For example, in Russian and Polish, a sound that Wikipedia describes as a "dentalized laminal alveolar" or "palatalized laminal alveolar" sibilant can occur; it can be transcribed [s̻ʲ], and is distinct in quality from [ɕ].

Lithuanian has a four-way contrast between /s/ /sʲ/ /ʃ/ /ɕ/, which Wikipedia describes the first two as "dentalized laminal alveolar", the third as "laminal flat postalveolar", and the fourth (which is alternatively transcribed as /ʃʲ/) as "alveolo-palatal".

It is in principle possible for /ɕ/ and /ʑ/ and /sʲ/ and /zʲ/ to be used as alternative transcriptions of the same phoneme in some languages: in a language like Japanese or Mandarin Chinese, there is no ambiguity with using /sʲ/. But in practice, I am used to seeing /ɕ/ used to represent the voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative in transcriptions of these languages, and I don't see any advantage to using /sʲ/ and /zʲ/ instead of /ɕ/ and /ʑ/ to represent alveolo-palatal fricatives.

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The four symbols represent four pairwisely very different sounds. They are not aliases.

The difference between sʲ and ɕ is roughly the difference between s and ʃ.

The difference between zʲ and ʑ is roughly the difference between z and ʒ.

Note that ɕ and ʑ are hushing sibilants, while sʲ and zʲ are hissing sibilants.

The answers above are incredibly complicated, though Alenanno (see below) is right to some extent.

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  • PS: 'minimal pairs' is far off-topic. Although the question says '/' it also says 'sounds', not 'phoneme'. Better rephrase the question with [ɕ] etc. May 12, 2023 at 18:32
  • PPS: By and large, often too scientific, elaborated the statements here. For example, the initiator of this post obviously is under the impression that [ɕ], [ʑ] are sounds of the kind tongue-firmly-touching-hard-palate-alveolar-ridge. It suffices to correct that misconception (hushing). No phonemes. May 12, 2023 at 19:27
  • 1) This is a twelve-year-old question. 2) Pretty much everything about this answer is wrong. The difference between a palatalised alveolar sibilant and an alveolo-palatal sibilant is nothing like the difference between an alveolar sibilant and a palato-alveolar sibilant. Nothing at all. And [ɕ ʑ] are hissing, not hushing, sibilants. 3) This is a site for linguists and linguistics. Linguistic terminology and fleshed-out argumentation is not only appropriate here, but expected. May 12, 2023 at 22:54
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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, 2012 at 23:07
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    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, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 23:37
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    He says "there is no contrastive difference between the two in any language, there is no real canonical difference between the two". Apparently he thinks that [ɕ] is a palatal pair of [s] while in fact it is a palatal pair of [ʃ].
    – Anixx
    Nov 15, 2012 at 1:14

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