3: The English /s/ and /z/

When does the -s ending sound like /s/, and when does it sound like /z/?

PRACTICE"Cats love boxes; dogs love beds."


Hello again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. This is podcast #3. If you've forgotten, or are listening for the first time, my name is Mandy.

Remember, Pronuncian.com is where you can find transcripts and show notes to all our podcasts, as well as each practice sentence or word set. Today's practice will be the sentence: "Cats love boxes; dogs love beds." We'll come back to that later.

I hope you still remember our practice sentence from podcast number one, "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things." I hope you also practiced our d sound/t sound minimal pairs from podcast number two: "dime, time; dense, tense; code, coat; tide, tight; spend, spent."

When I say that this is an American English Pronunciation podcast, I am referring to what is known as the General American Accent, the accent considered to be the most "neutral" accent for the United States. Canadian accents are quite similar to an American accent, or at least are more similar to an American accent than say, a British accent or an Australian accent. Certainly, there are variances in English spoken around the world, as well as within English speaking countries. I grew up in the United States and, since I teach in the United Sates and most of my students are long-time residents of the United States, I know far more about American accents than any other accent of spoken English.

Wikipedia has a map of where the "General American Accent" is most prevalent. I've linked to that site from Pronuncian.com. I'm from Wisconsin, just north of the area shown on this map. However, since I am actually from northern Wisconsin, I had a strong accent from that area when I moved to Seattle, Washington, five years ago. Since I've been teaching pronunciation for three years, I've lost most of that northern Wisconsin accent and picked up the more neutral "General American Accent." When I travel back to Wisconsin, however, my friends and family hear my new speech habits as an "accent." That just proves that an accent is only when you speak differently than those around you, and that is impossible to be accent-less.

Let's got to today's topic. I'm going to stay with the theme of voiced and unvoiced consonant sounds, and we're going to talk about another set of fricatives. The th sounds were the first fricatives we studied. In case you've forgotten, fricative is a continuous sound that is created by allowing only a small amount of air to leave the mouth, which causes friction, and sound.

Today's sounds are the s sound (s sound) and the z sound (z sound). Say those sounds to yourself and see if you can tell which is the voiced sound, and which is unvoiced. (s soundz sound). Remember, voiced sounds use our vocal cords, and we can feel the vibration if we put a finger against the front of our throat. I hope you said that the z sound is voiced, and the s sound is unvoiced.

The z sound and s sound are articulated in the same area at the front of our mouth as the t sound and d sound, at the tooth ridge. The tooth ridge is that area right behind our upper front teeth. To create the z sound and s sound, we make a little groove with our tongue and push air out through the center of the tip of the tongue and along that bony ridge behind our front teeth. The sound happens as the air is pushed into and around our front teeth.

The biggest problem I usually hear in the creation of this sound is that the tip of the tongue is too far back and the sound is created behind that ridge. I often hear Koreans say the s sound and z sound this way. An American English speaker will hear that sound as an sh sound instead of an s sound or z sound. Make sure the tip of the tongue is way forward, nearly touching the upper front teeth. I will also hear Korean speakers stop the flow of air at the beginning of an s sound or z sound. Both of these sounds are fricatives, meaning the air smoothly exits the mouth. If the sound is started by stopping all the air, a native English speaker will hear a j sound or ch sound instead of an s sound or z sound.

Mispronunciation, however, is not the major issue with the s sound and z sound. The most common problem I hear students have is substituting the s sound where the z sound should be. This problem is made even bigger by the fact that we have a huge number of words that are spelled with an "s", but pronounced with a "z". The highly frequent words, "is, his, as, please, because, these, those," and many, many more, are pronounced with a z sound. How do you, the non-native speaker learn which sound you should say? One way is to begin to pay very close attention to native speakers. Or else you need to learn to use that dictionary and its pronunciation symbols. Sorry everyone, there is no easy answer here.

There is one very handy rule I can teach you however, and that is how to pronounce the -s endings that are added to nouns to make them plural, to verbs when they are conjugated, or when two words are combined in a contraction.

The clue is in the final sound before the ending was added. You will need to know which sounds are voiced and which ones are unvoiced. If a word ends in an unvoiced sound, like the t sound in the word "cats," for example, the final "s" is pronounced as an s sound. If the final sound is voiced, like the final d sound in the word "beds," for example, the final "s" is pronounced as a z sound. I know I haven't talked about vowels at all yet, but let me say here, that all vowel sounds are voiced. So if I have the word "she", which ends in the long e sound, and I make a contraction of words the "she is" and create "she's," the final s is pronounced as a z sound.

We also have those -es endings, the ones that happen when we add a syllable to a word to conjugate it or make it plural. I mean in words like "kisses, watches, or boxes". When we add a syllable for the -es ending, that final s is always pronounced as a z sound.

So we had three rules for the -s ending we add to words. Number one: the "s" is pronounced as an s sound when it follows an unvoiced sound. Two: the "s" is pronounced as a z sound when it follows a voiced sound. And three: when we add a syllable to the word for the addition of "s", the final "s" is always pronounced as a z sound.

Here is a short sentence to help you remember all three final -s rules.

"Cats love boxes; dogs love beds."

The word "cats" is the only word with an s sound in that sentence. The rest are all pronounced as a z sound.

"Cats love boxes; dogs love beds."

This can all be difficult to understand from just listening to someone explain it without any visuals to look at. Go to the Pronuncian website for many more examples and exercises to practice these skills. You can also find diagrams of the mouth to help you create the sounds correctly, as well as many, many audio files to repeat after. Remember, once you know the correct way to do something, you still need a lot of practice to break the habit of doing it the old way.

If you have a pronunciation issue that you would like me to talk about, please email me at podcast @pronuncian.com, and I will get to it as soon as possible.

Have a great week everyone, and thanks for listening.