I'm an American spending some time in Japan, and notice that even though most people know some English words, they have a hard time understanding and pronouncing a word like "left" because of the final consonant. I assume this is because "letters" in Japanese are mostly consonant-vowel pairs, so that last "ft" just kind of registers as background noise or something. Without getting into psychoacoustics, I am curious if other languages have sounds which would be considered "half-letters" in American English -- like, we don't end up hearing the sound because it isn't grouped in a familiar way to us. The only one I can come up with is the first half of a flapped "L", with the tongue against the roof of the mouth, but before flapping it. Any other examples (or related curiosities)?

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    I have no idea what you're referring to by "a flapped 'L'". In what language does it occur, and can you name a word where it's found?
    – Nardog
    Sep 17, 2023 at 5:40
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    I don’t really understand what you mean by the flapped L either – are you referring to the sound found in Japanese which is normally transcribed as ⟨r⟩ in Romaji, and which is at least often a flap? And what exactly do you mean by ‘half-letters’? A very fundamental tenet of linguistics is that speech and writing are separate things. Letters belong to writing, and sounds belong to speech; so to a linguist, no sound is ever considered a letter (full or half), or vice versa. It seems you’re mixing the two up here, which doesn’t help clarity any. Sep 17, 2023 at 10:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet My reading of the question is that /Vh/ wouldn't qualify as a "half-letter" unless speakers of the language with it perceive it as a single component. Japanese speakers do group CV as distinct elements, even if it's likely a product of literacy for the most part.
    – Nardog
    Sep 17, 2023 at 16:14
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    In order to understand phonetics and phonology in an accurate way, you must do more to separate the idea of letters, phones, and phonemes as distinct ideas. “Half-letters” would imply an orthographical (writing system) difference rather than a phonological one.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 17, 2023 at 19:53
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    Though this doesn’t answer exactly the question you asked, you might consider the distinction between ⟨pʰ⟩ and ⟨p⟩, respectively the voiceless bilabial stops with and without aspiration. Most native speakers of English cannot even hear that in the words pin and spin, the sounds represented by the letter p are distinct. But that distinction is quite clear and important to speakers of other languages. Sep 18, 2023 at 11:42

2 Answers 2


Japanese speakers have a hard time perceiving consonant clusters because the phonotactics of Japanese allows few of them. It's not because it's written in syllabaries, or "letters", although your way of putting it wouldn't be so wrong if one interpreted the word in the obsolete sense meaning speech segments.

English has the affricates /tʃ, dʒ/, which are perceived (and written) distinctly (as in picture, jam), but /t, ʃ, d, ʒ/ too are phonemes in English so the idea that each affricate consists of a plosive and fricative isn't too hard a notion to swallow.

So examples of what you call "half-letters" in English may be easier to find in vowels than in consonants. Many varieties of English don't have a monophthongal mid front vowel ([e] or [ɛ]) that can occur without a consonant after it, and speakers of such varieties often have a hard time articulating or perceiving such a vowel at the end of a word and end up producing [eɪ], [i], or [ə]. This is the case in the Japanese loanwords sake, bokeh, and karaoke.

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    Although people seem perfectly happy to pronounce a simple, unchecked [ε] at the end of meh. (Did you mean bokeh? Boke is a verb meaning ‘throw up’, pronounced /boʊk/.) Sep 17, 2023 at 8:47
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Interjections and other quick informal words like “meh” often seem to exist on a totally different phonological plane than other words, almost in a paralinguistic way. I should also note that as far as I have perceived, meh commonly ends in a nasalized [ɛ̃] rather than simply an oral vowel.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 17, 2023 at 23:31

This paper documents some of the pronunciations of Japanese "r" (there is a fair amount of mythology surrounding the pronunciation of that phoneme, mostly aimed as the misconception that there is a single thing "r"). We don't have any concept of "half-letters", but we do have an subarea of phonetics that pertains to how phonological units in a language can be realized in many different ways (thus the single Japanese phonological object /r/ can be realized as phonetic [d ɖ ɾ ɽ ɹ l ɭ ɺ]), as well as how speakers of one language perceive the physical outputs of another language. An example of the latter is when I first heard the Norwegian place name "Skjervøy" I heard a vowel between "r" and "v" (I interpreted the vocalic transition from the liquid – something like [ɾ] – to the labial as a short vowel).

English speakers very commonly cannot correctly parse [ŋ] at the beginning of a word in a foreign language, though it's not so much that they don't hear it, it's that they can't make sense of it. Initial non-existent sequences like [mb, mp] can be produced by English speakers in many ways, depending on how they are exposed to the sequence. Orthographic stimuli typically result in retention of both letters, therefore outputs like [əmb, məb], but especially if the nasal has short duration, there is a good chance that the nasal is simply not parsed at all.

In some instances, we probably do not actually "hear" certain things (it does enter the ear, but it isn't processed as language sound), in languages like Tamazight with challenging consonant clusters where some stops are effectively inaudible to the uninitiated).

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