The Many Sounds of "S"
I’ve been working on the consonant chapter of my book and sometimes it’s difficult to know when to stop going into details. I find it fascinating that English has so many possibilities for pronunciations of what look like simple letters. Today, I’m going to go into details of five different ways the letter “s” sounds.
First, a reminder of exactly which letters and sounds of the alphabet I’m talking about.
Vowels = the letters: a, e, i, o, u, y
Vowels are represented by 6 letters, but create 14 different vowel sounds.
Consonants = all the other letters in the alphabet, including “y.”
b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z
The 21 consonant letters of the alphabet, create 24 different sounds, but it’s messy.
3 of the alphabet letters do not have unique sounds: “c, q, x”
The letter “C” either sounds like an “S” /s/ (“city”) or a “K” /k/ (“cake”).
The letter “Q” either sounds like a “KW” /kw/ (“quick”) or “K” /k/ (“unique”).
The letter “X” either sounds like a “Z” /z/ (“xenophobic”) or a “KS” /ks/ (“box”).
21 consonant letters in the alphabet - 3 letters that aren’t representing unique sounds = 18 letters that represent one sound each + 6 sounds not represented by single letters of the alphabet = 24 sounds
There are 6 sounds are not represented by the 21 consonant letters of the alphabet:
“th” voiceless /θ/ - think
“th” voiced /ð/ - that
“sh” /ʃ/ - she
“zh” /ʒ/ -measure
“ch” /t͡ʃ/ - chair
“ng” /d͡ʒ/ - ring
To make reading even more difficult, there are 8 letters/digraphs (digraph = two letters that represent one sound) that have more than one sound: “t, d, ng, ch, th, g, s.”
Do you know how many different ways the letter “s” sounds? A lot depends on the sound that it’s following so it’s important to know these terms:
“voiced” = The vocal folds are touching and vibrate to create sound, you can feel the vibration when you put your hand on your throat. The sound /z/ is voiced. Try it.
“voiceless” = The vocal folds do not touch and vibrate. You can hear the sound due to airflow but can’t feel vibration when you put your hand on your throat. The sound /s/ is voiceless. Try it.
The letter “S” has five possibilities
Sounds like an “S”
—when it follows a voiceless sound. Examples: cats, waits, sleeps
Sounds like a “Z”
—when it follows a voiced sound. Examples: dogs, cars, his
—when “ss” is between two vowels. Examples: dissolve, scissors, possess
—when it follows the sounds /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ (“sh”), /ʒ/ (“zh”), /t͡ʃ/ (“ch”), /d͡ʒ/ (“j”). A vowel is added before the /z/ to form /əz/ or /ɪz/. Examples: buses, watches, judges
Sounds like “SH” /ʃ/
—“l /n / s + sion” - when it’s before “ion” and after “l, n, s.” Examples: compulsion, tension, discussion
—“sure” - when it’s followed by “ure” in “sure”
—“n/s + sure” - when it’s before “ure” and after “n, s.” Examples: insure, assure
—“nsual” - when it’s before “ual” and after “n.” Examples: sensual, consensual
Sounds like “ZH” /ʒ/
—“rsion” - when it’s before “ion” and after /r/. Examples: conversion, diversion, excursion
—“vowel + sion” - when it’s before “ion” and after any vowel. Examples: vision, illusion, occasion
—“vowel + sure” - when it’s before “ure” and after any vowel. Examples: closure, measure, exposure
—“vowel + sual” - when it’s before “ual” and after any vowel. Examples: casual, usual, visual
— The “s” is usually silent in words from other languages. Examples: aisle, island, debris.
Some languages use symbols to help you know when a letter that has more than one possible pronunciation is representing which sound. Not English. Even all these spelling “rules” aren’t 100% reliable, there are always exceptions.
I was inspired to focus on “S” today because of a very good observation and question Eva had in a Pronunciation Meetup a while back. She asked why words spelled with “sion” sometimes sound like “shin” and sometimes sound like “zhin.” I couldn’t answer it at the time but now I’ve reviewed more rules for “s” pronunciation than I think I ever learned in the first place.
You don’t have to memorize all the rules, just pay attention to patterns. Now that these spelling patterns have been pointed out they’ll be easier to recognize the more you encounter them. The first step to recalling information is to attend to it in your environment so you can store it. I hope you notice a lot of “s” words today.
Hear these sounds pronounced: