Consonant voicing and devoicing

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Sound change and alternation

In phonology, voicing (or sonorization) is a sound change where a voiceless consonant becomes voiced due to the influence of its phonological environment; shift in the opposite direction is referred to as devoicing or desonorization. Most commonly, the change is a result of sound assimilation with an adjacent sound of opposite voicing, but it can also occur word-finally or in contact with a specific vowel.

For example, the English suffix -s is pronounced [s] when it follows a voiceless phoneme (cats), and [z] when it follows a voiced phoneme (dogs).[1] This type of assimilation is called progressive, where the second consonant assimilates to the first; regressive assimilation goes in the opposite direction, as can be seen in have to [hæftə].


English no longer has a productive process of voicing stem-final fricatives when forming noun-verb pairs or plural nouns, but there are still examples of voicing from earlier in the history of English:

  • belief – believe
  • life – live
  • proof – prove
  • strife – strive
  • thief – thieve
  • bath ([θ]) - bathe ([ð])
  • breath ([θ]) - breathe ([ð])
  • mouth ([θ], n.) – mouth ([ð], vb.)
  • sheath ([θ]) - sheathe ([ð])
  • wreath ([θ]) - wreathe ([ð])
  • house ([s], n.) – house ([z], vb.)
  • use ([s], n.) – use ([z], vb.)

Synchronically, the assimilation at morpheme boundaries is still productive, such as in:[2]

  • cat + s → cats
  • dog + s → dogs ([ɡz])
  • miss + ed → missed ([st])
  • whizz + ed → whizzed ([zd])

The voicing alternation found in plural formation is losing ground in the modern language,[citation needed] and of the alternations listed below many speakers retain only the [f-v] pattern, which is supported by the orthography. This voicing is a relic of Old English, the unvoiced consonants between voiced vowels were 'colored' with voicing. As the language became more analytic and less inflectional, final vowels or syllables stopped being pronounced. For example, modern knives is a one syllable word instead of a two syllable word, with the vowel e not being pronounced. However, the voicing alternation between [f] and [v] still occurs.

  • knife – knives
  • leaf – leaves
  • wife – wives
  • wolf – wolves

The following mutations are optional:[citation needed]

  • bath ([θ]) - baths ([ð])
  • mouth ([θ]) - mouths ([ð])
  • oath ([θ]) - oaths ([ð])
  • path ([θ]) - paths ([ð])
  • youth ([θ]) - youths ([ð])
  • house ([s]) – houses ([z])

Sonorants (/l r w j/) following aspirated fortis plosives (that is, /p t k/ in the onsets of stressed syllables unless preceded by /s/) are devoiced such as in please, crack, twin, and pewter.[3]

In other languages[edit]

Voicing assimilation[edit]

In many languages including Polish and Russian, there is anticipatory assimilation of unvoiced obstruents immediately before voiced obstruents. For example, Russian просьба 'request' is pronounced [ˈprozʲbə] (instead of *[ˈprosʲbə]) and Polish prośba 'request' is pronounced [ˈprɔʑba] (instead of *[ˈprɔɕba]). This process can cross word boundaries as well, for example Russian дочь бы [ˈdod͡ʑ bɨ] 'daughter would'. The opposite type of anticipatory assimilation happens to voiced obstruents before unvoiced ones: обсыпать [ɐˈps̪ɨpətʲ].

Final devoicing[edit]

Final devoicing is a systematic phonological process occurring in languages such as German, Dutch, Polish, and Russian, among others. In these languages, voiced obstruents in the syllable coda or at the end of a word become voiceless.

Initial voicing[edit]

Initial voicing is a process of historical sound change where voiceless consonants become voiced at the beginning of a word. For example, modern German sagen [ˈzaːɡn̩], Yiddish זאָגן[ˈzɔɡn̩], and Dutch zeggen [ˈzɛɣə] (all "say") all begin with [z], which derives from [s] in an earlier stage of Germanic, as still attested in English say, Swedish säga [ˈsɛjːa], and Icelandic segja [ˈseiːja]. Some English dialects were affected by this as well, but it is rare in Modern English. One example is fox (with the original consonant) compared to vixen (with a voiced consonant).



  • Roach, Peter (2004), "British English: Received Pronunciation", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 34 (2): 239–245, doi:10.1017/S0025100304001768
  • Grijzenhout, Janet (2000), Voicing and devoicing in English, German, and Dutch; evidence for domain-specific identity constraints (PDF)