In learning about the IPA consonants, a big distinction is between voiced and unvoiced consonants.

When whispering however, we use no voice (I think). Yet, I feel like I can still hear these voiced sounds:


As well as the vowels. That is, we are able to whisper in English no problem.

Wondering what "voiced" means in this context. Because my vocal chords aren't vibrating. Wondering if what I'm hearing in a whisper is more based on my memory of words rather than on the actual sounds. For example, when one whispers very, I don't hear fairy, but whispering fairy, the f is slightly less harsh than the v so I can hear fairy. Same with dare and tear, I can hear the difference. It sounds like the d "pops" more than the t, but I'm not sure if this is accounted for.

Wondering also where I can find more information on whispering in terms of linguistics and IPA notation, if there is anything on it.

1 Answer 1


As for the voiced plosives you mentioned, that is b, g, d, and also affricates, such as j (as in jar, the unvoiced counterpart is ch in char)these are distinguished from their unvoiced counterparts by aspiration1 as well as voicing.

Your brain doesn't notice since the entire segment stream is unvoiced, so the contrast is just as noticeable.

And as for the continuants, say /z/ versus /s/, I'm not sure there are enough minimal pairs for it to be a problem.

1: Unvoiced plosive consonants tend to be aspirated in English, except in pre-nuclear consonant clusters and possibly other phonemic contexts where English has no voiced/unvoiced minimal pairs.

  • 1
    Right. There are always many features that are different between two phonemes; voiced/voiceless is just the most prominent and easiest to recognize. But aspiration, tenseness, and behavior of surrounding segments (vowels tend to be longer before phonemically voiced consonants, even when they're not being voiced phonetically) can be recognized unconsciously, so that whispering does not interfere with much information.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:32
  • @jlawler So would you say there's going to be some feature that distinguishes <s> and <z>, besides voicing, that I don't know of? I'm sure there is. As for my accent/dialect, "fairy" and "very" are not minimal pairs, and I couldn't think of any examples. Can you? Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:39
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    Tenseness is one difference; as for fricative pairs, how about safer/savor, gross/grows, mace/maze, laser/lacer, lazier/lacier, have/half, racer/razor?
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:42
  • 2
    Also, in my dialect of English at least, "voiced" plosives don't actually have a negative VOT—so phonetically, they're not "voiced" at all! Not knowing this made it very difficult for me to learn Ancient Greek's three-way aspirated/unaspirated/voiced contrast.
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 16:11
  • @Draconis If you don't mind me asking, which area you from? I have never heard of that! Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 17:42

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