/s/ vs. /z/

Moderator: JackFrost

User avatar
Babbsagg
Posts: 225
Joined: 2017-02-26, 8:54
Gender: male
Country: DE Germany (Deutschland)

/s/ vs. /z/

Postby Babbsagg » 2017-04-30, 16:10

So this is one of the most confusing aspects of English pronunciation to me: when a written "S" is /s/ and when it's /z/ (I know it's always /z/ when written with "Z" and always /s/ when written with "C"). I know some rules, but questions remain.

The rules I know (or as I understand them):

Word-initial: S is always /s/. No matter how I long I searched the internet for an answer, I couldn't find one. I had to ask English-speaking people myself. Apparently it's universally taken for granted, which isn't helpful to a German-speaking learner.

Mid-word:
- next to a voiceless consonant, it's /s/
- otherwise, it's /z/

Word-final:
- after a vowel, it's /z/
- after a voiced consonant, it's /z/
- directly after a voiceless consonant, it's /s/
- flection realised with an additional vocal (e.g. "kisses", "buses", "clinges", "punches") : always /z/
- /z/ becomes /s/ if the next word starts with a voiceless consonant

Furthermore, "ss" is generally /s/, with a few exceptions ("possess", where the mid-word "ss" is /z/)

Further exceptions:

- "insist" is realised with /ns/ instead of /nz/ (Latin word stem etc.) , while "resist" is realised with /z/, for historical reasons I'm told (introduced in English from French instead of Latin) :?
- "close" (adj.) is allegedly realised with /s/ but "close" (verb) with /z/, because the latter ends in theory with a vowel :hmm: ...does that mean the verb once ended with a vowel that later disappeared, but the /z/ stuck? Or is there some sort of "tendency" to /z/ in verbs and /s/ in adjectives? Or what is this about?

More problems I haven't found answers for:

- by the rules I'm told, "this" should be /z/, but is /s/
- likewise with "purpose", "mantis", "nurse"
- "is" is pronounced with /z/, but "us" with /s/ (except if unstressed)
Are there rules for this or is it just irregular and you have to memorise the pronunciation of each?

One final thing: sometimes it seems to me that native speakers don't strictly adhere to the rules either (unless I'm mishearing): "Wales" is officially /z/, but usually it sounds like /s/ to me.

Your expert opinion would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for correcting mistakes!

User avatar
Dormouse559
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 6108
Joined: 2010-05-30, 0:06
Real Name: Matthew
Gender: male
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby Dormouse559 » 2017-05-12, 17:10

Babbsagg wrote:(I know it's always /z/ when written with "Z" and always /s/ when written with "C")
With occasional exceptions. Some people pronounce the second C in "electricity" /z/. I have a feeling there are other words like that, but I can't think of any right now.

Babbsabb wrote:Word-initial: S is always /s/.
Yep. There may be exceptions, but none are coming to mind.

Babbsabb wrote:Mid-word:
- next to a voiceless consonant, it's /s/
- otherwise, it's /z/
That second rule is incorrect. Between vowel letters, S is often pronounced /z/, but /s/ also becomes common after voiced consonants; and between vowel letters at morpheme boundaries and in some borrowed vocabulary.

Within morphemes, S preceded by a voiced consonant is usually pronounced /s/. The main exceptions I've found are "intrinsic/extrinsic", "forensic" and "palsy".

Morpheme boundaries are less predictable. Compare "resist" with a /z/ and "desist" with a /s/, "observe" /z/ and "conserve" /s/. More recent or transparent derivations usually have /s/, as in "resend" and "disappear". Then there's derivational suffixes that begin with S, which also default to /s/ ("awesome", "myself").

On the borrowing side, the medial S in words like "analysis" and "oasis" is pronounced /s/. Medial S in Spanish borrowings tends to be /s/ unless it's before a voiced consonant.

Babbsagg wrote:Word-final:
- after a vowel, it's /z/
- after a voiced consonant, it's /z/
- directly after a voiceless consonant, it's /s/
- inflection realised with an additional vowel (e.g. "kisses", "buses", "clinges" (clinches?), "punches") : always /z/
- /z/ becomes /s/ if the next word starts with a voiceless consonant
I'd change your first rule to "after a vowel, it's /s/". The /z/ realization is mainly limited to inflectional suffixes. Speaking of which, you can more accurately describe those by changing your fourth rule to "inflections not preceded by a voiceless consonant: always /z/". I also am not familiar with your last rule. It may be dialect-specific.

You never said where S followed by silent E goes. Phonologically, these S's represent word-final sounds, but orthographically, they are medial.

Babbsagg wrote:- "insist" is realised with /ns/ instead of /nz/ (Latin word stem etc.) , while "resist" is realised with /z/, for historical reasons I'm told (introduced in English from French instead of Latin) :?
I'd just say these need to be learned. Each root seems to have a more common realization in derivations, but may have exceptions. (-sist - /s/, but "resist" - /z/; -serve - /z/, but "conserve" - /s/)

Babbsagg wrote:- "close" (adj.) is allegedly realised with /s/ but "close" (verb) with /z/, because the latter ends in theory with a vowel :hmm: ...does that mean the verb once ended with a vowel that later disappeared, but the /z/ stuck? Or is there some sort of "tendency" to /z/ in verbs and /s/ in adjectives? Or what is this about?
It may be a bit of both these things. There's an occasional alternation between voiceless consonants in non-verbs and voiced ones in verbs derived from them.

house n. /s/ - house v. /z/
half n. /f/ - halve v. /v/
teeth n. /θ/ - teethe /ð/
bath n. /θ/ - bathe v. /ð/ (+vowel shift)

Notice how after "house" all the written forms add E to the verb. There may have been a verbal suffix that caused the voicing we see nowadays. It could be the model for the voicing alternation in "close". It's just that "clos" for the adjective would suggest a pronunciation like /klɑs/.

Babbsagg wrote:- by the rules I'm told, "this" should be /z/, but is /s/
Fixed by my change to your first word-final rule.

Babbsagg wrote:- likewise with "purpose", "mantis", "nurse"
"Mantis is explained by my edit to your first word-final rule. Can't say anything about the other two until I know whether you consider the S's word-final or not.

Babbsagg wrote:- "is" is pronounced with /z/, but "us" with /s/ (except if unstressed)
"Us", also falls under the first word-final rule. The S in "is" is just an irregular inflectional suffix, so it's governed by my edit to your fourth word-medial rule.

Babbsagg wrote:One final thing: sometimes it seems to me that native speakers don't strictly adhere to the rules either (unless I'm mishearing): "Wales" is officially /z/, but usually it sounds like /s/ to me.
Can't speak to that. It may be a feature of whatever dialect you're hearing.

EDIT: Suggested a change to the fourth word-final rule
N'hésite pas à corriger mes erreurs.

User avatar
Babbsagg
Posts: 225
Joined: 2017-02-26, 8:54
Gender: male
Country: DE Germany (Deutschland)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby Babbsagg » 2017-05-14, 18:03

Wow. Guess that'll keep me busy for a while. Many thanks!

As for "clinge", I can't remember how I came up with that word, heh... no idea.

As for the noun/verb distinction, my first idea would be that historically, the verbs had -e endings like in some other Germanic languages, but have become silent while the consonant retained its voiced pronunciation.
Thank you for correcting mistakes!

User avatar
mōdgethanc
Posts: 10370
Joined: 2010-03-20, 5:27
Real Name: Μέγας Αλέξανδρος
Gender: male
Location: Toronto
Country: CA Canada (Canada)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby mōdgethanc » 2017-05-14, 23:58

Babbsagg wrote:$$Word-initial: S is always /s/. No matter how I long I searched the internet for an answer, I couldn't find one. I had to ask English-speaking people myself. Apparently it's universally taken for granted, which isn't helpful to a German-speaking learner.
As far as I know it is always /s/ here.
- /z/ becomes /s/ if the next word starts with a voiceless consonant
This is just assimilation and not a phonemic thing, I think.
- "close" (adj.) is allegedly realised with /s/ but "close" (verb) with /z/, because the latter ends in theory with a vowel :hmm: ...does that mean the verb once ended with a vowel that later disappeared, but the /z/ stuck? Or is there some sort of "tendency" to /z/ in verbs and /s/ in adjectives? Or what is this about?
When you see a word-final silent <e>, often it was once a schwa (and before that, a full vowel). But sometimes it's just to make the word look pretty or something. I don't know of any rule here. You just have to memorize these words.
- by the rules I'm told, "this" should be /z/, but is /s/
- "is" is pronounced with /z/, but "us" with /s/ (except if unstressed)
Are there rules for this or is it just irregular and you have to memorise the pronunciation of each?
Function words that are common often have exceptions. Eg. "of", "then", "that" would normally have voiceless fricatives but they are voiced because they commonly occur between vowels, I guess, and that got generalized to every instance of these words.
One final thing: sometimes it seems to me that native speakers don't strictly adhere to the rules either (unless I'm mishearing): "Wales" is officially /z/, but usually it sounds like /s/ to me.
I have never heard this in my life. It is definitely /z/.

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-05-15, 21:18

Babbsagg wrote:As for the noun/verb distinction, my first idea would be that historically, the verbs had -e endings like in some other Germanic languages, but have become silent while the consonant retained its voiced pronunciation.

That's pretty much exactly what happened. Bathe, for instance, derives from OE baþian. OE had a phonological rule whereby fricatives had voiced allophones in medial position. The loss of final syllables in the Middle English period (aided by the widespread borrowing of words from languages like French and Dutch) led to the emergence of a phonemic distinction. This alternation was eventually extended analogically even to borrowed words, e.g. excuse, use

Other native examples involving /s/ vs /z/:

glass : glaze
grass : graze
loss : lose

Interestingly, despite the fact that mouse as a verb dates back to the early ME period (ca 1275). I've only ever heard it with /s/ (though the OED lists alternatives with /z/). In any case, the alternation seems to be no longer productive, cf. grouse, case.

There was a similar historical alternation in adjectives, but they later generally acquired /s/ by analogy (probably because suffixes like -y have remained so productive to this day). The most notable exception is greasy, which today defines a major dialect isogloss in the USA. (Some consider it to be the boundary between Northern and Southern Midland.) /z/ prevails in the Southeast while /s/ is found elsewhere.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

User avatar
Babbsagg
Posts: 225
Joined: 2017-02-26, 8:54
Gender: male
Country: DE Germany (Deutschland)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby Babbsagg » 2017-05-15, 21:32

What I get from this is that I'll never master the "perfect" Standard English pronunciation of everything, like many native speakers apparently don't. Maybe I'm too perfectionist (provided there's such a thing as "too perfectionist" in Germany).
Thank you for correcting mistakes!

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-05-15, 21:40

Babbsagg wrote:What I get from this is that I'll never master the "perfect" Standard English pronunciation of everything, like many native speakers apparently don't. Maybe I'm too perfectionist (provided there's such a thing as "too perfectionist" in Germany).

"Standard English" is a chimaera anyway.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

User avatar
mōdgethanc
Posts: 10370
Joined: 2010-03-20, 5:27
Real Name: Μέγας Αλέξανδρος
Gender: male
Location: Toronto
Country: CA Canada (Canada)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby mōdgethanc » 2017-05-16, 2:45

linguoboy wrote:"Standard English" is a chimaera chimera anyway.
Proving your point.

vijayjohn
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 17581
Joined: 2013-01-10, 8:49
Real Name: Vijay John
Gender: male
Location: Austin
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby vijayjohn » 2017-10-03, 4:45

Babbsagg wrote:Word-initial: S is always /s/.

Well, unless it's /ʃ/ or something. :)

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-10-03, 16:52

vijayjohn wrote:
Babbsagg wrote:Word-initial: S is always /s/.

Well, unless it's /ʃ/ or something. :)

Are there any examples besides sugar and sure? The proper name Sade, I guess (being an abbreviation of Yoruba Fọláṣadé with a diacritic indicating palatalisation). And of course borrowings from German.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

vijayjohn
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 17581
Joined: 2013-01-10, 8:49
Real Name: Vijay John
Gender: male
Location: Austin
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby vijayjohn » 2017-10-03, 17:54

linguoboy wrote:
vijayjohn wrote:
Babbsagg wrote:Word-initial: S is always /s/.

Well, unless it's /ʃ/ or something. :)

Are there any examples besides sugar and sure? The proper name Sade, I guess (being an abbreviation of Yoruba Fọláṣadé with a diacritic indicating palatalisation). And of course borrowings from German.

I was really just thinking of sure tbh. :lol: I can't really think of anything else except Indian names, which are sometimes spelled with "S" and sometimes with "Sh."

Of course, if you consider words that begin with "sh" as words that begin with "s," then there's those too. :whistle:

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-10-03, 18:03

There are also Irish given names like Sinéad and Séamus. Most ordinary Irish words are anglicised (e.g. shebeen for [/i] síbín). The only common exception that comes to mind is sidhe, which has some of the characteristics of a proper name (since it usually refers specifically to the fairies of Irish or at least Celtic folklore rather than fairy folk more generally).
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

vijayjohn
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 17581
Joined: 2013-01-10, 8:49
Real Name: Vijay John
Gender: male
Location: Austin
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby vijayjohn » 2017-10-03, 18:07

Oh, and of course Sean! :D (And Seon, apparently).

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-10-03, 18:19

vijayjohn wrote:Oh, and of course Sean! :D (And Seon, apparently).

Sean (with its variants Séan and Seán), Siobhán, Siofra, Séafra, Seárlas, etc.

Perhaps amusingly, these almost all represent borrowings from French with Irish /sʹ/ replacing Norman /ʤ/ bzw. Standard French /ʒ/. A couple may also be modified from English originals by analogy.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

vijayjohn
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 17581
Joined: 2013-01-10, 8:49
Real Name: Vijay John
Gender: male
Location: Austin
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby vijayjohn » 2017-10-03, 18:45

I'd forgotten about Siobhán. I didn't realize Séan and Seán were used in English, too.

User avatar
Babbsagg
Posts: 225
Joined: 2017-02-26, 8:54
Gender: male
Country: DE Germany (Deutschland)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby Babbsagg » 2017-10-04, 23:08

Ok you're right. What I meant is that word-initial S is never /z/ in English. Or is it?
Thank you for correcting mistakes!

vijayjohn
Language Forum Moderator
Posts: 17581
Joined: 2013-01-10, 8:49
Real Name: Vijay John
Gender: male
Location: Austin
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby vijayjohn » 2017-10-05, 2:06

Not that I can think of.

User avatar
linguoboy
Posts: 20472
Joined: 2009-08-25, 15:11
Real Name: Da
Location: Chicago
Country: US United States (United States)

Re: /s/ vs. /z/

Postby linguoboy » 2017-10-05, 2:51

'sblood
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons


Return to “English”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests