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s, x, sh - the sibilants


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I find the difference between x and sh interesting. So far I have gathered this:

s - like english unvoiced "s"
x - this one is tricky. To me it sounds almost like "s". I suspect the tongue is positioned between "s" position and english "sh". I have read that it is the same as the japanese "sh"-sound.
sh - "sh"-sound with a retroflex tongue. It took me a while to get this, but then I found that this sound is very similar to the "sj"-sound in Swedish. It is quite easy once you understand where the tongue should go.

Do you agree with this as a rule of thumb?

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Yes, the Chinese "x" is the same as the Japanese "sh". But Westerners seldom produce that Japanese sound correctly even if they are fluent in the language.

If it's of any help, the Chinese "x" (IPA /ɕ/) is closer to the German sound in "ich" (IPA /ç/). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_alveolo-palatal_sibilant and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_palatal_fricative for a dry and technical description.

The diffrenece between "s" and "x" is that to produce the latter sound, you need to raise the back of your tongue higher.

It's the opposite with "sh", which is basically the English "sh" with a retroflex flavor -- the tip of your tongue is curled up and "backwards".

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So German "ich" is a good aproximation of "xi" ? Norwegian also has this sound - written as "kj". The tongue does indeed go to the back of the bottom front teeth. But I don´t feel it sounds the same as Chinese "xi".

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Well, ich/kj are still different from xi (or so I'm guessing from the fact that they get a different IPA symbol). Even with the tongue going to the back of the bottom front teeth, there's still a range of tongue positions to pick from. I guess along that dimension it does sort of feel like it's in between s and sh.

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For x (and j/q) I don't think the tongue tip has to be on the back of the bottom of the bottom front teeth, I think it can just hang around in mid-air not doing much, while the important action takes place just behind if, i.e. the front-but-not-tip part of the tongue pushing up against the palate.


The tip is more important for s/z/c.

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For me, I think of pronouncing the "x" as allowing the left and right edges of the tongue vibrate while making a "soft" sh sound (almost a "s" sound). This also means a "flatter" tongue. I'm American, mid-west.

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