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Based on some reading that I've done, the English "voiced" stops /b d g/ aren't actually voiced word-initially. For instance, /bæt/ is realized as [pæt] or [b̥æt], rather than [bæt]. The distinction between /p t k/ and /b d g/ in these word-initial positions is therefore based on aspiration, rather than voicing.

What confuses me, however, is that I've also read that native monolingual Portuguese speakers hear English word-initial /b/ as [b]. Unlike English, Portuguese /b/ and /p/ are distinguished on the basis on voicing; that is, they are pronounced as [b] and [p], respectively. Because of this, one would think that Portuguese speakers would associate English /b/ with Portuguese /p/, since both are pronounced as [p]. However, this is not the case - English /b/ is heard as Portuguese /b/ instead. So what's going on here? Is there a difference between English /b/ and Portuguese /p/ that I'm missing?

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    I am only an amateur linguist, but haven't precisely heard that for English generally /b/, /d/, and /g/ are not voiced initially. I have, I think, read this claim about some Germanic languages and dialects, such as Icelandic. What I have heard is that English speakers generally have delayed or partial voicing of initial /b/, /d/, and /g/. That is what I hear in standard American English and do not generally hear in Brazilian Portuguese (at least in Sao Paulo). I do not know how this difference would affect the perception of Portuguese speakers generally. Jan 21 at 16:24
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    I propose to change the title to better reflect the Q's focus on Brazilian Portuguese.
    – Mindwin
    Jan 21 at 21:26
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    Non-English speakers is far too broad a category of linguistics use of language anyway. At least limit to some subset of European ESL. Jan 21 at 23:20
  • As a speaker of Czech I mostly ignore aspiration. Our English speakers mostly did as well. Still we never really had problems associating our p with the English p and our b with the English b in words like pit and bit. But it may be the effect of the education. There are well known such changes when borrowing words from Bavarian (Austrian) dialects (Bündel > pingl). Sometimes even from Italian, not sure if under the influence of German (battaglia > patálie, subito > šupito). Jan 22 at 9:48
  • @Vegawatcher You're kind of right. What Jackson is talking about isn't a phonological rule where a lenis ('voiced') consonant is substituted with a fortis ('unvoiced') one in certain positions. Rather he's talking about an assimilatory process whereby lenis consonants become devoiced when next to voiceless sounds - including silence. (Notice that this process is anticipatory as well as progressive. Lenis consonants will be devoiced before voiceless sounds. It is a misunderstanding therefore to think that word initial English /b/ will be devoiced. It won't be if preceded by a voiced phone. Jan 24 at 16:39

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You may be missing this article, which finds that Brazilian Portuguese speakers do not rely exclusively on voice onset time (VOT) values in perceiving the English p/b contrast (although, the subjects were learning English). In particular, burst intensity and F0 are also cues to phonological voicing, which could easily suffice to overcome the difference in VOT.

It would also be good to scrutinize the experimental circumstance for a claim that Portuguese monolinguals perceive English initial [b] as [b] and not [p] (i.e. do the subjects know that the stimuli are English?). A monolingual Portuguese speaker may still have had significant auditory exposure to English (many American monolingual English speakers can still correctly identify Spanish samples as Spanish).

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  • A monolingual Portuguese speaker may still have had significant auditory exposure to English - A lot of music and subtitled audiovisual media (movies, tv series), especially for middle class and above. Most schools start English lessons at sixth grade, with several starting as early as 1st grade or at preschool.
    – Mindwin
    Jan 21 at 21:25
  • I don't have evidence, but I suspect almost all Brazilians would recognize English as such even if they have no understanding of the language.
    – Mindwin
    Jan 21 at 21:30

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