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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



All dictionaries I have ever checked give the pronunciation of the English plural, possessive, and third-person singular "-s" suffixes as /z/ after vowels and voiced consonants. However, I have noticed in my own speech and in the speech of some other Americans that it is sometimes pronounced [s] instead.

One person who regularly pronounces these suffixes as [s] after vowels and voiced consonants is the current President Bush. A brief excerpt from one of his recent speeches appears below in mp3 format:
Click here for excerpt
"These months have been a time of new responsibilities and sacrifice and national resolve and great progress."
To my ear, his pronunciation of the last consonant of "responsibilities" is identical to that of the last consonant of "sacrifice" and "progress," though dictionaries would give /z/ as the pronunciation for the first and /s/ for the second and third.

His rival Al Gore seems to voice such suffixes:
Click here for excerpt
"Millions of Americans now share a feeling that something pretty basic has gone wrong in our country and that some important American values are being placed at risk."
Across the pond, Tony Blair voices his suffixes even more distinctly:
Click here for excerpt
"In some of the developing countries represented here, too, we face the same challenges."
In a recent test of a fellow native Californian's pronunciation, I found that she also pronounced these suffixes as [s]. However, when the suffix was preceded by a vowel the vowel was lengthened, suggesting that on the phonological level, at least, the consonant is voiced:
trays [trei:s] (phonemically /trez/?)
trace [treis] (phonemically /tres/?)
My sample of only three informants, including myself, who devoice these suffixes is too small to draw any conclusions, though I wonder whether the fact that all three are from the American Southwest could indicate an influence from Spanish.
(September 13, 2003)