Is that an S I hear?

In English we tend to form our plurals with “s,” which sounds simple but needs a bit of explaining because while the letter “s” may appear, its pronunciation is governed by the final sound in the word.

We add an “s” and say plain old “s” /s/ when the word ends in the unvoiced (you don’t feel a vibration if you touch your throat while you say them) sounds /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ and the /th/ in “path.”

We add “s” but say it like “z” /z/ with the voiced (check your throat, you should feel vibrations) sounds /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/,  /l/, /m/, /n/, /ng/, /r/ or a vowel sound. (It would also apply to the /th/ in “writhe,” however I was unable to find a noun with this final sound as there is another phonological pattern in English where the noun forms of related words end in the unvoiced /th/ – “bath” and the verb forms end in a voiced /th/ – “bathe.”)

Finally, if the word ends in a sibilant  /s/, /z/ /ʃ/ as in “wish,” /tʃ/ as in “pitch,” /dʒ/ as in “ridge” or /ʒ/ as in “mirage,” we add an “es” and say either /iz/ or /uz/.

One way to test these rules for yourself is to make up non-words that end with sounds of each of the three types, and then create plurals. Try it with “•geck,” “•gring” and “•gitch.” You should find, in line with Jean Berko, that your pronunciations vary even though you’ve never had to form these plurals before.

As I learned to speak English before I could read or spell, the challenge was to associate multiple sounds with a single letter – “s.” Because I only began learning German as a literate adult, I can be confused by spelling patterns that map onto multiple sounds as the plural “s” does in English. At least I can take comfort that I not alone in this. Here is a small portion of a party invitation that one 7 year old boy sent to another:

Sak mir ob du kome konnst which I think is a rough sound-based rendering of Sag mir ob du kommen kannst “Tell me if you can come”

I hope after reading this you will say that you can come and enjoy the party here on Earthquake Words. Unfortunately, however, the blog will be on a short hiatus as I travel to Poland and will be “unplugged” for a week or so. I look forward to sharing more with you after my trip – tschüss and “bye for now.”


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