44: Letter 'x' pronunciations: /ks/ or /gz/

While /ks/ is more common (as in 'box'), "gz" ( as in 'exact') is also a pronunciation for the letter 'x'.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 44th episode.

Today's topic is about the x sound, and is taken directly from the Pronuncian forums. I want to thank Ollie22 in California for starting this topic, and Alberto in New York for adding a comment to it. If you've never gone and looked at the forums, go to Pronuncian forums. Check them out, read the topics, start a topic of your own, or add to an ongoing topic. It is all absolutely free.

I thought Ollie22's question was so interesting, that I decided to do a little more research on the letter. The letter x is an odd little letter. Because the letter represents two sounds (usually k+s), whereas most letters in English represent only one sound at a time, x has caught the attention of many famous people of America's past, all the way back to the birth of the country itself. Benjamin Franklin, one of our forefathers, suggested removing the letter from the alphabet. It wasn't just the x that bothered him, though; he also wanted to get rid of c, j, q, w, and y, since they can all be represented by other letters.

Literary great Mark Twain also had issues with the letter x. He suggested, in satire, that we get rid of 'x', and then reintroduce it to represent the 'th sound,' so that sound could be represented by a single letter. I guess the x was supposed to represent both the voiced and unvoiced 'th sound,' but I don't know for sure. Mr. Twain didn't get into that much detail.

Perhaps the best-known name in linguistics regarding English for non-native speakers is Noah Webster, the original creator of the great Webster's Dictionary. Webster was all about spelling reform, and did do a number of things to make English spelling simpler. Unfortunately, his solutions created new confusions, because British English did not follow along. That is the reason for those differences in spelling between British and American spelling. Even Webster couldn't get rid of the letter x, and so we still have it to this day.

Most ESL teachers teach their students the same thing we were taught as children in the United States, that the letter x is said as (ks), or the k sound plus the s sound, as in the word "box". Some of you out there have noticed that this is not always true, though, and so Ollie22 decided to find out what the rule is for when the x is pronounced as (gz) or g sound + z sound, as in the words exam and exaggerate.

First, there is this rule of thumb from Alberto: x is pronounced ks whenever x is between a vowel and a consonant. This is very much true. If the x isn't followed by a vowel, ks is going to be the way to say it. Alberto gave the examples of the words "excuse" and "experience".

Before I tell you which set of sounds to say, k+s or g+z, I want to talk about how to say these sounds next to each other. The k sound and g sound are both stops, meaning we stop the air from exiting the mouth for a little bit of time, then let the sound go with a little puff. The s sound and z sound are both fricatives, meaning the sound is made with air smoothly exiting the mouth. When we say a stop sound before a continuous consonant, such as a fricative, the air gets stopped for the first sound, and the second sound begins as soon as the air is released. Notice how this happens for the k+s sound and the g+z sound. I'll say both sets of sounds so you can hear how the sounds link together:


I'll say them again so you can repeat after me.

Listen to a word with a k+s sound and a g+z sound.
k+s: Except
g+z: Example

So when do we say k+s and when do we say g+z? There are two parts: first, the stressed syllable of the word must begin immediately after the letter x AND secondly, the x must be followed by a vowel. Then the x is pronounced as a g sound plus z sound. The trick there is that the syllable following the x must be stressed for it to work.

Let me repeat the rule: When the stressed syllable begins immediately after the letter x AND the x is followed by a vowel sound, the x is pronounced as a g sound plus z sound.

An example is the word "example". Do you hear the g+z: example.

Let's look at some other examples of the rule at work as well as a few exceptions. Because it is English, there are always exceptions.

The following words are all pronounced with the letter x as g+z. Please repeat them after me, as long as you are in a somewhat private place.


ex-HAUST (there is no h sound)


Next are three exceptions to the rule. These words are pronounced as g+z, even though the word stress would not dictate it.




There you go everyone. If you were always pronouncing the x as k+s, now you know you need to be careful with this letter, it has multiple pronunciations.

You can find the entire dialog about the x sounds on the forums at www.pronuncian.com/forums, or click the Forum link from the Pronuncian homepage. You can also go to Pronuncian to see lots of free pronunciation lessons and the transcripts for all of our podcasts.

That's all for today, everyone. You can expect the next video podcast next week. I'll also upload an audio-only version for those of you who don't have video options on your MP3 players.

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening!