In the comments to "slip(per)" (7/22/14), we have had a very lively discussion on whether or not people would pronounce these two sentences differently in Mandarin:
wǒ yào tuōxié
"I want slippers."
wǒ yào tuō xié
"I want to take off my shoes."
Of the more than two dozen individuals having native fluency in Mandarin whom I surveyed, those who said that they pronounced these sentences exactly alike tended to be professional language teachers responsible for elementary and intermediate pedagogy, beginning and intermediate students, and humanists who are highly literate in characters, while those who stated that they pronounce these two sentences differently tended to be linguists and individuals who are fluent in Mandarin but illiterate or minimally literate in characters.
I presented the views of some in the latter group in these comments to the original post:
Yanyan Sui (whose dissertation dealt directly with this sort of problem)
Other comments to the thread touched on related issues.
I believe that those who maintain that they pronounce wǒ yào tuōxié and wǒ yào tuō xié exactly alike have been unduly influenced by the lexically prescribed pronunciation of the constituent morphosyllables in isolation, while those who recognize that the two sentences are pronounced differently are taking the words that make up the sentences in the overall context of their grammatical roles.
I was trying to think of comparable sentences in English, and yesterday I hit upon this pair:
I want to fish.
I want two fish.
If we pronounce the syllables of these two sentences as they are presented in a dictionary, they will be perfectly homophonous. But no one who possesses native fluency in English will pronounce these two sentences alike in actual conversation.
As Mark Liberman explains:
The usual American way to pronounce "I want to fish" would involve a completely reduced "to" in "want to", so that the vowel becomes schwa and the consonant is just a (perhaps nasal) flap, e.g.
[wɒ̃ɾə] or [wɒ̃nə]
rather than [wɒ̃ʔtuw]
A slightly less reduced version would be something like
And, from the other side of the Big Pond, John Wells phonetically annotates the two sentences thus:
1. I want two fish (not just one) aɪ wɒnt ˈtuː fɪʃ
2. I want to fish (I’m an angler!) aɪ wɒnt tə ˈfɪʃ
I submit that speakers of Chinese languages make the same kinds of adjustments in real life. They are not like robots or automatons who woodenly pronounce syllables according to their stipulated sounds as found in a dictionary. Rather, they make changes and adjustments, add emphases and stresses and pauses, and so forth, just as people do in all other languages. Our language does not consist solely of lexical items. A language will not function with syllables alone, but must take into account words, grammar, syntax, and various suprasegmental features of actual speech. Just as we will not get our message across if we insist on pronouncing "I want two fish" and "I want to fish" in an identical fashion, so we will confuse people if we pronounce wǒ yào tuōxié and wǒ yào tuō xié exactly alike.