The “p” sound in English

For some time, I had noticed some people taking my name and spelling it as “Bablo”. This was more common with, say, couriers than with cafe baristas, probably because the former tend to be from countries where English is a first language, whereas the latter tend to be from Southern European countries. Or at least that’s my perception, in my specific bubble in London. I could be wrong. I would love to see some figures on that.

For a time, I made an effort to emphasise that misheard “p”, but people kept getting it wrong. I would increase my degree of emphasis, and ultimately I would end up sounding really silly… and still getting my name misspelled by couriers.

It was only the other day, playing with the voice control of a 4th generation Apple TV that it dawned on me, what I had been doing wrong all this time. I was spelling out some login credentials, letter after letter, and Siri refused to acknowledge a “p”, insisting that I was giving her (it?) a “b”, no matter how much force I put on my labial stop. And the person next to me, an Irish national, agreed with Siri. Finally I had an opportunity to unravel this mystery.

Long story short: the Spanish “p” is different from the English “p”. It took me 12 years in the UK to realise.

Wikipedia starts providing a clue, then confuses the reader, then a proper read shows the difference. The page for Spanish phonology describes the “p” as “labial stop” as expected (by myself anyway), while the English phonology page has it as “labial plosive/affricate fortis”. Promising, whatever that meant… Or it appears to be until both links (click on the “p” phoneme on the table) lead to the same page: Voiceless bilabial stop. W00t?

It is in the examples section of the page that the Spanish phoneme is described as a “plain p” or /p/, whereas the Engish one appears as “aspirated p” or /ph/. And that was exactly what I learned spelling out letters to Siri with the assistance of an English-speaking human. I had to pronounce it in a way that, to me, sounded more like a “pf”, with a very light “f”, for Siri (and the human) to accept. Not only that, further down the password there was also a “t” that Siri would get as “d”, and the problem was pretty much the same: I had to pronounce a bit more like “tch”.

You see, I speak English well. I learn it from a book.