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Background-Info: In contrast to mandarin Chinese, which can only have a few consonants at the and of a syllable, e.g. man, mang, Cantonese syllables can contain p,t,k at their end.

Nevertheless, these consonants are so called unreleased stops. That is, the tongue gets into the right position, but, in opposition to usual stops, there is no pressure build up and released in a little oral explosion of air.

I am curious, if three syllables like ap, at, ak are discerned auditory, i repeated these syllables to myself and it is like being tricked, i can not tell, if i hear or do not hear a difference.

Question: What about Cantonese people, are they able to discern them just by listening the syllables without any further context that might help deduce which syllable is meant?

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English also has so-called unreleased stops, mainly in consonant clusters, e.g. act [æk̚t] vs apt [æp̚t]. The phonemes that have no audible release are certainly contrastive in English here; they are simply masked by the release of the /t/ that follows.

There is of course the case of the glottal stop, which can be considered phonemic, especially in connected speech. For example, this example from John Wells's blog:

start button = [stɑːʔ bʌʔn]

star button = [stɑː bʌʔn]

Korean is another language that has final unvoiced stops that are unreleased: ㅅㄷㅌㅎ are all realised as /t/, ㅂㅍ as /p/, and ㄱㅋ as /k/. With the large number of loanwords coming from English into Korean, many of which have a final stop that is released, the epenthetic vowel /ɯ/ (written ㅡ) is usually inserted. For example, "lamp" /læmp/ is borrowed as "램프" /ɾæmpʰɯ/. Hence in Korean, the difference between released and unreleased phonemes is keenly felt.

So how can this perceptual acuity occur? It is a mistake to think that a plosive consonant's identity comes only from its release. Traditionally, as summarised on the same blog, plosives are analysed into three phonetic phases: approach (also called closing), hold and release. The approach phase can influence the vowel's phonation, as the earlier blog post states:

...it may be more an effect on the phonation of the end of the vowel than just an instant of silence, [...]

Hence the closing gesture as the vowel is shut off into the plosive consonant is what is perceived. This can even be visualised on spectrograms.

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Yes, Cantonese people are able to discern unreleased stops just by listening the syllables without any further context that might help deduce which syllable is meant, moreover, other people in dialect areas like Hu Nan, Fu Jian, Jiang Xi,Zhe Jiang, Jiangsu,Shanghai in China can discern them. With the spectrograms and hearing test, we can find that consonants before vowels or after vowels are determined by the changing trend of formants of vowels, the releasing of the stops is at most one of the distinctive features of consonants.

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